Hassan Barari
The Jordan Times (Opinion)
February 9, 2010 - 1:00am

Over the last few years, Israel has been working hard to lure Saudi Arabia to open communication channels and political contacts. Despite the continuous American demand that Saudi Arabia consider the Israeli demand, the Saudi declared position remained unchanged: no contacts whatsoever with Israel until the latter responds positively to the Arabs’ quest for peace.

And yet, surprisingly, Prince Turki Al Faisal of Saudi Arabia shook hands with Daniel Ayalon, deputy foreign minister of Israel, in Munich last Saturday. I was in the audience at the Munich security conference when the handshake happened. The fact that Saudi Arabia has no diplomatic relations with Israel did not prevent the Saudi prince from responding to what appeared as an Israeli challenge when Ayalon challenged the Saudi prince to meet him half way and shake his hand.

Just a month ago, the same Ayalon provoked a diplomatic crisis with Turkey for rebuking its ambassador in a humiliating way. Perhaps for this reason the Turkish foreign minister refused to have Ayalon join him in a session at the Munich security conference.

This raises a question why Israel chose the same man who triggered a diplomatic battle with Turkey to participate in the same conference.

Advancing peace in the Middle East entails changing attitudes. Many in Jordan and in our region question whether it helps the peace process to have people like Ayalon and his boss, Avigdor Lieberman, at the helm of the Israeli ministry of foreign affairs. The way this ministry has been conducting itself since Lieberman's advent indicates that peace is not a priority amongst these senior officials.

Back to the main point, the Saudi prince conducted himself in a very civilised way. He clarified that he was not behind depriving Ayalon of the possibility of joining the same session and then he stood up to the challenge and accepted to shake an Israeli hand publicly. Some in the Arab world will not like this gesture, yet the Saudi prince would have been embarrassed had he chosen to snub the Israeli diplomat.

That said, this gesture should not be taken out of its immediate context. It is not an expression of a change of the Saudi position and, equally important, it should not be seen as a diplomatic breakthrough. Saudi Arabia is committed to support the two-state solution to the Arab-Israeli problem, and to establishing diplomatic relations with Israel but only after peace is achieved.

Like many other Arab states, Saudi Arabia - and here is the crux of the matter - thinks of the sequence of events. There must be peace first and then normalisation. Put differently, the Saudis prefer to not put the cart before the horse.

If anything, the Munich security conference revealed that opponents can talk to each other and can respond positively to different gestures, yet this will not change the basic fact that if the core issues are not addressed thoroughly, these gestures are set to fade away within days.

I understand that public diplomacy can help iron out differences and can tone down tensions among opponents and rivals, but this is no replacement to peace making in the Middle East. I subscribe to a school of thought which believes that solving the Arab-Israeli conflict is key to solving other conflicts in the region.

It is in the best interest of all players to work together to implement a solution within parameters that are well-known.

Perhaps Ayalon should not deceive himself and think that he made a gigantic breakthrough; nobody in the Arab world will take the Israeli gestures seriously if they are not substantiated by actions.



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