Tightening purse strings

April 28, 2002

GEORGE W. Bush heads the most powerful democracy in the world. Crown Prince Abdullah is the de facto ruler of the wealthiest oil kingdom on the planet. And yet, when it comes to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, neither has been willing to use his considerable power to exact a change in the corrosive situation there.

Mr. Bush may have forged a "strong personal bond" with the Saudi prince during the monarch's visit Thursday to the president's Texas ranch. And the two may have reaffirmed their "shared vision" of a two-state solution to the Middle East problem. But the meeting in Crawford offered little more than a restatement of the two allies' positions on the most divisive issue in U.S.-Arab relations. Each wants the other to do more to end Israel's military incursion into West Bank cities and Palestinian reliance on suicide bombers.

The visit did give the Saudi prince an enviable platform from which to press the Palestinian cause and bluntly warn Mr. Bush of the consequences for U.S. interests should it fail to rein in Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.

The most tangible outcome of the visit was the prince's assurance not to use Saudi oil as a political tool to exact Mideast concessions -- no small concession considering the United States imports 17 percent of its oil from the kingdom.

The United States and Saudi Arabia have long been allies, a partnership forged over the kingdom's vast oil reserves and U.S. weaponry. That bond intensified after Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein's invasion of Kuwait and the subsequent Persian Gulf crisis.

But the relationship has suffered in the past two years as the Israeli-Palestinian situation deteriorated. The Sept. 11 attacks on New York and Washington exacerbated the tensions when Americans learned of the involvement of Saudi nationals in the hijackings and the vitriolic anti-American sentiment swirling through the kingdom. Vice President Dick Cheney's disappointing trip to Arab capitals earlier this year confirmed the sagging state of relations.

When Prince Abdullah proposed a peace initiative in March that offered Arab recognition of Israel in exchange for an Israeli withdrawal from occupied territories to 1967 borders, the Bush administration rightly recognized the significance of the plan.

To his credit, Mr. Bush refused to take no for an answer when the crown prince twice refused invitations to the Crawford ranch because of the Mideast situation. The meeting allowed the president to turn on his Texas charm with the prince. But to what end?

If this first meeting enables the two leaders to break free of their roles as protectors of Israel and the Palestinians to forge a new peace strategy, then their candid talks and ranch roamings will have been worth it.

Both the United States and Saudi Arabia are significant benefactors of their respective Mideast consorts: Israel receives nearly $3 billion a year from the United States, and the Saudis recently helped raise $13 million for Palestinian victims and have underwritten tens of millions in aid to the Palestinian Authority.

The president and the prince have economic leverage they haven't used to break the Middle East stalemate. For Mr. Bush, it would mean bucking a powerful Jewish lobby and a Christian right that supports Israel. For Prince Abdullah, it would mean putting principles above popularity. But if they are serious about wanting peace, it's time to do just that.

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