WASHINGTON -- In the wake of Saudi Arabia's decision to skip a U.S.-orchestrated Middle East peace conference, the U.S.-Saudi honeymoon may be coming to an end.
That, at least, is the implication of a letter sent to Saudi King Fahd by 64 senators urging him to reconsider the decision.
"This move by Saudi Arabia is a slap in our face," said Sen. Bob Packwood, R-Ore., who co-authored the letter with Sen. Frank R. Lautenberg, D-N.J. "We risked and lost American lives to assist Saudi Arabia. Now, when we ask them to help us achieve peace and stability in the Middle East, they say 'no thanks.' "
Secretary of State James A. Baker III, who crisscrossed the region in an effort to set up a comprehensive Arab-Israeli peace conference, has publicly downplayed the criticality of Saudi participation.
An Arab-Israeli peace conference, he has asserted, should be confined to Israel and its immediate neighbors, suggesting that any number of Arab nations could demand a role in the process if the Saudis participated, making the enterprise unwieldy.
As the richest Arab nation and as guardian of Islam's holiest shrines, however, Saudi Arabia is unlike any other Arab country. Israelis and U.S.
officials were hoping it would wield its clout to restrain radical members of the Arab anti-Israel alliance.
And, privately, Mr. Baker was reportedly "chagrined" when the Saudis informed him of their decision earlier this month. A State Department source told the Associated Press that the Saudis had led Mr. Baker to expect their participation.
By all accounts, Mr. Baker was depending on the Saudis to draw Israel into a two-tiered peace process: The Arabs would negotiate peace agreements with the Israelis while the negotiators would work out terms of self-rule for 1.7 million Palestinians under Israeli occupation.
Mr. Baker's surprise extends to Capitol Hill, where lawmakers had shared the administration's belief that the Saudis had relaxed their anti-Israel policy in the wake of their showdown with Iraq.
"When Iraq invaded Kuwait, the Saudis sent out an SOS to the United States," said Senator Lautenberg. "Now that the war is over and the United States is seeking peace in the Middle East, the Saudis are still sending out an SOS -- same old story. They're as intransigent as ever.
"It is our strong belief that Saudi Arabia's participation in the negotiations with Israel is indispensable for any real peace process to succeed," the letter continued. "In the past, Saudi Arabia has joined Arab war efforts against Israel, and Saudi Arabia should now join efforts as the United States works with others to bring peace to the Middle East."