WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama was said to have pledged to Saudi Arabia that the United States would force Israel to withdraw from eastern Jerusalem and the entire West Bank by 2012.
Diplomatic sources said Obama relayed a pledge to Saudi King Abdullah that he would take any measure to ensure an Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank and Jerusalem over the next 18 months. They said Obama relayed the pledge to Abdullah during the president’s trip to Riyad in June 2009, about four months after he assumed office, in exchange for Abdullah’s help to arrange for the end of the Taliban war in Afghanistan.
“Obama believes the Saudis are the most important element in his strategy to withdraw from Afghanistan,” a diplomatic source familiar with the Obama-Abdullah talks, said. “Abdullah said he was ready to talk to Taliban, but asked for a clear and definitive promise to deliver Israel.”
On June 29, Abdullah met Obama in the White House, the third session over the last 18 months. Officials said the two leaders focused on Gulf security and the Middle East peace process.
“This is a very important visit [by Abdullah],” U.S. ambassador to Riyad, James Smith, said.
The sources said Abdullah has demanded U.S. guarantees that Israel would withdraw from the West Bank and most of Jerusalem by 2012. They said the Saudi king also expressed opposition to U.S. arms sales to Israel and Washington’s boycott of the Hamas regime in the Gaza Strip.
Obama’s approach to the Saudis was formulated soon after he entered the White House in late January 2009. In May 2009, Obama sent an envoy, Richard Holbrooke, to Riyad to urge the kingdom to support efforts to facilitate a NATO withdrawal from Afghanistan.
The sources said Abdullah asserted that he wielded significant influence over the Saudi-financed Taliban, the main rebel force in Afghanistan. But the king told Holbrooke, Obama’s envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan, that he first wanted Washington to adopt and implement the Saudi plan for an Arab-Israeli settlement.
“Holbrooke agreed with everything Abdullah asked,” a source who monitored the meeting recalled. “He [Holbrook] kept saying ‘No problem,’ even to the most outrageous demands. At that point, the king said, ‘I want to hear this from your boss.’”
About two weeks later, on June 3, Obama arrived in Riyad and was greeted lavishly by Abdullah, who also presented him with a thick gold chain that represented the kingdom’s highest honor. The sources said the president, reaffirming what Holbrooke said, pledged to adopt the Saudi plan for an Arab-Israeli settlement, which called for full Israeli withdrawal to the 1967 borders, a Palestinian state and the return of Palestinian refugees to their homes in what was now Israel.
On the following day, Obama flew to Egypt where he announced that the United States would open a “new chapter” with the Muslim world. The president’s speech in Cairo focused on U.S. plans to establish a Palestinian state in the West Bank.
Holbrooke, who helped broker the end of the war in Bosnia in 1995, has long advocated that Washington must be prepared to force Israel into a settlement with the Palestinians in any effort to win Arab support for U.S. policy in the Middle East. Holbrooke, who also reports to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, was said to have joined senior U.S. military commanders in asserting that Washington’s support for Israel was the key reason for the Arab refusal to cooperate in either Afghanistan or Iraq.
Since the Obama pledge, the sources said, the White House has rejected virtually every Israeli request for U.S. weapons platforms. They said Obama also delayed decisions by the former administration of President George Bush to deliver attack helicopters, air transports, bunker-buster air bombs and Hellfire air-to-ground missiles to the Jewish state.
During his latest meeting, Obama had been expected to urge the 86-year-old Saudi king to reconcile rival Fatah and Hamas movements to facilitate an Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank and eastern Jerusalem. On July 6, Obama was scheduled to meet Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the White House.
“The king wants to have from Obama the assurance that he is going to solve the [Arab-Israeli] issue,” Khaled Al Maeena, editor of the Saudi-owned Arab News, said.
The sources said the White House has assessed that Saudi cooperation was vital amid the Taliban offensive in Afghanistan and the dismissal of U.S. commander Gen. Stanley McChrystal. On June 23, McChrystal resigned in wake of a magazine article in which he and other officers criticized Obama’s policy in Afghanistan and the president’s lack of military experience.
“The president has sent constant appeals to Abdullah to obtain a Taliban agreement for a ceasefire that could result in the start of an American and NATO withdrawal,” the source said. “But Abdullah first wants Obama to deliver on his promise concerning Israel. He [Abdullah] wants results before the congressional elections [in November 2010].”
The sources said Abdullah’s impatience with Obama has been exacerbated by Saudi concern over Iran’s nuclear weapons program. They said Riyad has been alarmed by Washington’s failure to stop Teheran’s ballistic missile and nuclear projects and instead pursue diplomacy with Iran.
“We see the issue in the shorter term because we are closer to the threat,” Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saudi Al Faisal said. “We need an immediate resolution.”
In late 2009, the Saudi leadership sent a message to the White House that called for U.S. assistance to fight Yemeni Shi’ite rebels. The sources said the Saudis asserted that the rebels were being financed and equipped by Iran.
“The Saudis are terrified of Iran, but they can’t bring themselves to admitting that they need help,” the source said. “What they would rather do is publicly show how they are using Washington to do what Iran could never achieve — a full Israeli withdrawal to the 1967 borders without an Arab peace agreement.”