When Prince Turki Al Faisal of Saudi Arabia, head of Saudi Arabia's General Intelligence Directorate for 23 years, one of the most powerful positions in the government, visited the College of William & Mary in 2014, he spoke at an open forum, reflecting on his vision of reshaping the Middle East.
His vision - in light of the Trump administration's emerging approach to develop a strategy on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, namely to build an alignment with Sunni Muslim countries, may become a reality.
The prince, who holds degrees from the School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University, Princeton, Cambridge and the University of London, played a key role in funding and arming the mujahideen in Afghanistan, helping them to defeat and expel the Soviet occupation forces.
"Those tribesmen defeated a superpower and contributed to the collapse of communism and the demise of the Soviet Union," the Prince said.
He pointed out that Saudi Arabia firmly believes that peace in the region will only be achieved through cooperation that is built on trust, dialogue and engagement. "This is why Saudi Arabia will continue to take the lead in negotiating between and with conflicting parties and nations. Furthermore, the kingdom firmly believes that the most vital security issue is progress through sustained economic development."
I asked the prince whether he would be interested in getting in touch with Yair Lapid, at that time Israel's finance minister. He was head of the centrist Yesh Atid Party, the second largest party in the Knesset, the Israeli parliament. In 2013, Lapid ranked first on the list, of the "Most Influential Jews in the World."
I told the prince that Lapid's late father Tommy Lapid, who served previously as Israel's Deputy Prime Minister and Justice Minister, was a close friend of mine. We had known each other in Hungary. From there, he immigrated to Israel. My connection with the Lapid family, I said, may be of some value. The prince agreed and asked me to get in touch with his staff. I did so, but after a few email exchanges our communication ceased.
Apparently, the time was not ripe yet for a Saudi Arabian involvement in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But now, the Trump administration is developing a strategy, called "outside-in" approach that would enlist Sunni Arab nations to break years of deadlock.
According to Dennis B. Ross, a longtime Middle East peace negotiator under Republican and Democratic presidents, the logic of "outside-in" strategy could work because the Palestinians are so weak and divided, and because there's a new, tacit relationship between Sunni Arabs and Israel, due to their shared concern about Iranian hegemony in the region. There's hope Sunni Arabs would be prepared to do more to end the conflict between the Israelis and the Palestinians.
Yair Lapid, a centrist politician whom many in Israel see as a possible successor to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, in his party's platform calls for "two states for two peoples" while maintaining the large Israeli settlement blocks and ensuring the safety of Israel. He proclaimed that a single country for both Israelis and Palestinians without a peace agreement would endanger the Jewish, democratic character of Israel. "We are not looking for a happy marriage with the Palestinians, but for a divorce agreement we can live with."
In a major speech last year, he said, "Israel's strategic goal needs to be regional agreement that will lead to full and normal relations with the Arab world and the creation of a demilitarized independent Palestinian state alongside Israel. That's were Israel needs to head. Separation from Palestinians with strict security measures will save the Jewish character of the state."
Prince Turki, chairman of the King Faisal Center for Research and Islamic Studies, in his interview with the Lake Placid News and the Virginia Gazette said: "Saudi Arabia firmly believes that the most vital security issue is progress through sustained economic development. For the people and for the governments of the Middle East, peace, not conflict, is clearly seen as the gateway to prosperity."
Frank Shatz's column was reprinted with permission from the Virginia Gazette. Shatz is a Lake Placid seasonal resident. He is the author of "Reports from Distant Place," a compilation of his selected columns.