TANGIER, MOROCCO -- An extraordinarily blunt message hit the Clinton administration back in Washington like a rocket: The United States, it said, was standing idly by as the Middle East peace process was foundering. If Washington didn't get its act together, and fast, the region would explode in violence.
The message was all the more extraordinary considering the source. It was from Crown Prince Abdallah of Saudi Arabia, America's closest and most important Arab ally. And in case the U.S. didn't get the message, Prince Abdallah -- the de facto ruler of the oil-rich kingdom since his brother King Fahd suffered a stroke -- made a point of repeating the message to Henry Siegman, a Middle East specialist with the New York-based Council on Foreign Relations who spent three hours last week with the Saudi regent in Riyadh.
"He was furious, livid about how little the Americans were doing to save the peace process," said Siegman, who later came to Tangier to attend a conference on relations between the United States and the Arab world. "He said America's reluctance to confront Israel's settlement policies in Jerusalem and the West Bank would destroy the entire peace process."
Abdallah's message, the existence of which was confirmed to Salon by a senior Saudi official close to the prince, is noteworthy because such messages are so rare. It's also a symptom of the despair and anger that is coursing through the Arab world and was readily apparent at the conference attended by academics, journalists and writers in Tangier. Even the bomb blast in the Jerusalem market, which occurred on the eve of the conference opening, did little to assuage the anti-Israel and anti-U.S. feelings. While many of the attendees were appalled at the bloodshed, they said recent Israeli government actions had brought the terrorist action down on Jewish heads.
Such bitterness was echoed by Prince Abdallah during his conversation with Siegman, when he accused Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of being responsible for an incendiary poster that appeared recently in the West Bank town of Hebron. The poster, depicting the Prophet Mohammed as a pig, ignited several weeks of Palestinian rioting. "When I reminded the crown prince that Netanyahu had no part in that poster (Netanyahu publicly condemned the poster and ordered the arrest of the Jewish settler who put it up), Abdallah said he was speaking about Netanyahu's moral responsibility as a leader in creating the political climate for such insults," Siegman said.
"Then he reminded me that this was not the first time that Netanyahu had created a climate of hatred and violence. He said Leah Rabin (widow of assassinated Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin) had accused Netanyahu of fomenting the climate that led to her husband's murder."
The intensity of feeling does not bode well for Secretary of State Madeleine Albright's new peace initiative, which she launched only after Palestinian suicide bombs killed 14 Israelis and plunged the already battered peace process to new depths. The initiative calls for an Israeli freeze on further Jewish settlements in East Jerusalem and the West Bank while Israelis and Palestinians start fast-track negotiations toward a final settlement. Special Middle East envoy Dennis Ross was in the region Sunday trying to get talks restarted. Albright will make her first visit to the Middle East at the end of the month.
For many of the experts at the Tangier conference, it's time for the U.S. to put up or shut up. "The United States has to decide whether it wants peace with the Arabs or whether it wants Jewish settlements," said Mohammed Sid-Ahmed, a veteran political analyst for the Egyptian newspaper al Ahram. "It cannot have both, and it is deluding itself to think that it can."