Why Saudis speak with conflicting voices on peace plan
Saudi Arabia's Middle East peace plan will be in the international diplomatic spotlight this week at two important summit meetings - the Arab summit in Fez, Morocco, and the European Community summit in London.
What has kept the Saudi proposals alive since they were first enunciated by Crown Prince Fahd back in August is widening recognition that the Saudi plan could offer:
* The thin end of the wedge for an Arab recognition of Israel's right to exist - broader than just Egypt's acceptance of the latter in the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty.
* A bridge for a wider treatment of the Palestinian problem than that established in the Camp David accords, should the latter eventually bog down in stalemate - which seems increasingly likely.
But ironically, to keep the Saudi proposals alive, virtually everybody with any positive interest in them is having to equivocate, including the Saudi government itself.
(There is no equivocation on the part of Israel and Libya. To Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin, the Saudi plan is a move intended to dismember Israel piecemeal. To Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi, the plan is a US-backed move to sell out the Palestinians and get the rest of the Arab world to accept Israel. Some of the more radical Palestinian splinter groups take a similar line.)
To keep their plan afloat, the Saudis recognize that they must secure and maintain the interest in it of: the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), Syria, Jordan, and the United States. Jordan and the US have already declared a favorable interest. PLO leader Yasser Arafat - who arrived in Saudi Arabia unexpectedly Nov. 22 to confer with King Khalid - has equivocated. Syria, usually a hard-line rejectionist on negotiation with the Israelis, has had remarkably little to say about the Saudi plan.
The immediate challenge to the Saudis is to get PLO and Syrian support for their plan without alienating the US. The problem is that the PLO and Syria are constituencies so very different from the US.
To keep US support, the Saudis need to make their plan sound as generous as possible toward Israel and cautious on the issue of a Palestinian state. But to win PLO and Syrian support, they need to make the plan sound generous toward the Palestinians and as tough as possible toward Israel. This explains why the Saudis sometimes seem to be speaking with two conflicting voices, depending upon the audience being addressed.
The Saudis are hoping to secure support for their plan at the Fez summit. This support, from their point of view, must include the voices of the PLO and Syria. Colonel Qaddafi has announced he will boycott the summit, so one of the most frequently disruptive voices will be absent.
The Saudis do have useful cards to play in their diplomatic game with the PLO and Syria. For both, Saudi Arabia is a generous financial benefactor. Syria has an almost paranoid fear of being left out in the cold to face Israel on its own. And as an incentive to both the PLO and Syria, the Saudis are reportedly dangling before them the possibility of establishing diplomatic relations with Moscow. This in turn could be represented as a Saudi willingness to meet hard-line Arab objections by playing a Soviet card as leverage on the US.
Significantly perhaps, when the ''rejectionists'' (Libya, Syria, Iraq, Algeria, South Yemen, and the PLO) met last week to agree on a common policy at Fez on the Saudi proposals, the gathering adjourned without announcing any such policy. Some analysts wondered whether this was due to either Syrian or PLO equivocation.
If so, they are not the only equivocators in the game. In Israeli eyes, the Reagan administration in the US has been blowing first hot and then cold on the Saudi proposals. Israelis insist that the Camp David route and the Saudi plan are mutually exclusive and that no government can in good faith back both. The Israeli government can hardly have been reassured when President Reagan, at his most recent news conference, kept the US line open to the Saudi proposals.
The European leaders, at their London summit at the end of this week, can be expected to join in the general equivocation. The European Community, ever since its Venice declaration of 1980, has been more pro-PLO than is the US. This has led it to back the Saudi peace plan more warmly than the US - and to be generally skeptical about the Camp David approach ever leading to an acceptable resolution of the Palestinian issue likely to ensure peace.
The Europeans produced cries of protest from Palestinians and other hard-line Arabs when European troops were offered to help the US police the Camp David accords in Sinai. Don't worry, the Europeans retorted, this doesn't mean that we are going back on our Venice declaration or our support for the Saudi plan.
That only infuriated the Israelis, who have hinted they will veto European participation in the Sinai policing operation unless it is accompanied by an unequivocal declaration of support for Camp David.
There remain, it would seem, two options for the Europeans. Going back on their tacit agreement to join in the Sinai policing operation - or equivocation.