Last night’s GOP presidential debate and the Eurozone financial crisis may seem like the most important issues of the moment, but the biggest news yesterday may have come, barely noticed, on the diplomatic front. In an article in Monday’s New York Times, Saudi Prince Turki al-Faisal threatened that his country will break with the U.S. on Iraq, and perhaps on Afghanistan and Yemen, over Israeli-Palestinian affairs in coming weeks.
For those who tuned out the Israeli-Palestinian tug-of-war last year when talks broke down, Palestinians are preparing to ask unilaterally for recognition as a state from the United Nations Security Council on Sept. 22 or 23. The U.S. has threatened to veto the request, saying only a negotiated end to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict can produce a lasting peace.
In his New York Times piece, Prince Turki says if the U.S. does veto Palestinian statehood, Saudi Arabia would be forced “to adopt a far more independent and assertive foreign policy” and could break with the U.S. on some key issues. First, he says, Saudi Arabia will oppose the government of Nouri al-Maliki in Iraq and refuse to open an embassy there, something the U.S. has been pressing the Saudis to do. Further, he writes, “The Saudi government might part ways with Washington in Afghanistan and Yemen as well.”
Prince Turki chose his targets with intent. A Saudi break on Iraq increases the likelihood of continuing sectarian violence between Shiites and Sunnis, threatening Obama’s potentially accelerated and controversial drawdown of U.S. troops there. In Yemen, the U.S. is struggling to manage the fall of its counterterrorism ally Ali Abdullah Saleh, and needs the help of the Saudis, Yemen’s enormously influential neighbors to the north, to manage a rising al Qaeda threat there. The biggest danger of all may be on Afghanistan: the Saudis are Pakistan’s closest ally, and the future of the American mission in Afghanistan depends on pressuring Pakistan to help find a diplomatic solution to the war.
Prince Turki was known for being outspoken when he was the head of Saudi intelligence and, later, the ambassador to the U.S. and since he is no longer in government in Saudi Arabia his threats can’t be taken as directly from the Saudi leadership. U.S. officials are comforting themselves with that fact, and in private claim U.S.-Saudi bilateral relations are still strong.
But Turki’s clearly not freelancing, says Daniel Levy of the New America Foundation. “Someone in that position doesn’t just write a piece like that without approval,” Levy says. Levy and others believe a veto’s consequences will come on several fronts and most of them will be to the U.S. detriment. “The U.S. is the big loser,” if it goes ahead with a veto at the U.N., Levy says. Not only will the Saudis take a tougher line but the transitional countries, like Egypt and Tunisia, which have restive populations, may also be compelled to strike out against the U.S.
The U.S. has been trying for months to broker new talks between Palestinians and Israelis to avoid the U.N. showdown, but the effort has not gone well, and the U.S. veto seems increasingly likely. State department spokesperson Victoria Nuland dismissed the Prince Turki article, reiterating the U.S.’s desire for talks.