This story was first published at Al-Ahram Weekly.
Retired General Majed Anwar Eshki, a Saudi scholar who heads the Centre for Middle East Strategic and Legal Studies in Jeddah, defended his recent visit to Israel as having a potentially positive impact on the Palestinian cause in the framework of the Saudi-sponsored Arab Peace Initiative that was adopted in the Arab summit in Beirut in 2002.
General Eshki regards himself as an ambassador of peace and as a politically influential academic in Saudi Arabia and the Arab region.
He urges his critics to exercise some introspection and assess their roles and relationships with Israel, and he appealed to the Arab League to review measures regarding visits to the occupied territories and Jerusalem.
Speaking to Al-Ahram Weekly by phone from Saudi Arabia, General Eshki described his visit to Israel as a “correct action”.
“As I mentioned in numerous press interviews, the PA (Palestinian Authority) had arranged all the meetings that took place.
I believe that the basic purpose is that we should not leave the Palestinians alone. We need to visit them. Nor should we leave Jerusalem alone. We should visit it too.”
The visit precipitated heated controversy in Arab political and academic circles.
Some see Eshki as among Arab figures who are handing Israel a normalisation process free-of-charge.
One writer questioned his political acumen and ability to handle talks with shrewd Israeli politicians.
Hamas, the Palestinian Islamic Jihad and other Palestinian movements issued statements of condemnation, not so much of the visit as of the visitor who responded that many of those same critics have been seen embracing and shaking hands with Israelis and some consulted him, personally, to develop strategies for how to develop a good relationship with Israel.
“We’ve had more than enough posturing, which has never killed a tank,” Eshki said.
“Ask Abu Marzouq about Elie Cohen. And Iran trades in the blood of Palestinians. It pays for Palestinian blood and there are those who will accept the payment. Nizar Qabbani could not have put it better: ‘With my dirhams, not smooth talk, I broke your impregnable might. With my dirhams.’”
He continued: “I respect the views of those who opposed my visit to the occupied territories, if they did not attempt to offend me. As for those who insulted me, that is a sign of the nature of their behaviour.
If they take that too far, I could take legal action. The Palestinians in the West Bank and in Jerusalem did not voice objections. As for those opponents in Gaza, I responded to their objections in an article that was published in an Egyptian newspaper and that people can consult if they want to know my attitude towards those critics.
But, I will stress again here that I am convinced in the correctness of my opinion. We should not leave our Palestinian brothers to contend with [their situation] alone. There is an official relationship.
Our Palestinian brothers have a right to receive us as visitors so that we can stand by their side.”
There is a long list of accusations that have been levelled at people who have undertaken actions similar to that of Eshki, even if their visits were in response to Palestinian invitations or their visits to Jerusalem were arranged through Jordanian religious endowment foundations.
But in meeting with Israeli personages, Eshki’s visit added another dimension.
According to the Saudi general, some of these meetings were requested by the Israeli figures themselves, as was the case with his meeting with Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories Major General Yoav Mordechai, which took place in the King David Hotel in Jerusalem.
However, according to Haaretz of 22 July 2016, Eshki arrived in Israel at the head of a delegation of Saudi academics and businessmen who met with foreign ministry director-general Dore Gold, Mordechai and some Knesset members.
The Weekly asked Eshki whether there was not some validity to the criticisms levelled against him. After all, such meetings and talks are presumably the duty of diplomats or even intelligence officials.
Also, the Saudi government issued previous statements — such as that of 20 December 2015 — stressing that Eshki, as well as Nawaf Obeid and Jamal Khasheqji, do not represent Saudi Arabia.
“I am a strategist,” the retired general said. “I set a goal and I determine the best way to get there. We have an Arab initiative that was put to the Israeli side. That initiative should be acted on because it promotes the welfare of our Palestinian brothers. The initiative was proposed by Saudi Arabia and adopted in the Arab summit in Beirut in 2002. Acting on it requires dialogue, and this takes place through visits and talks. As long as there is apossibility for understanding, dialogue is a duty.”
He added: “The Saudi King Abdel Aziz used to say that every Saudi is an ambassador of his country. We are now in the 21st century and we believe in cultural diplomacy. I am the director of a research centre and I visited the occupied territories. This was not my first visit there, nor will it be my last. I went there about a year ago. Others have undertaken similar visits. I went together with four researchers from the studies centre that I head. I believe this was important in view of my capacity as a well-known academic.”
But how does this relate to official Saudi policy?
“To the best of my knowledge, the kingdom’s policy can be encapsulated in the words of the late King Abdullah: ‘There were be no normalisation until after the initiative goes into effect and its provisions are implemented.’ The only country that has not normalised and will not normalise, and that has not shaken the hand of any Israeli officially, is Saudi Arabia. This is for the sake of our Palestinian brothers. All I have done — and the sole purpose of it — is to move the stagnant waters after the Palestinian cause became marginalised due to events in the Arab, regional and international spheres.”
Dr Majed Anwar Eshki was born in Medina in 1943.
After graduating from secondary school, he enrolled in the military academy from which he graduated in 1967 with the rank of second lieutenant.
He served in the Arab League peacekeeping force, which he joined in 1970, and as director of the Armed Forces Hospital from 1974.
He retired from military service in 1987 with the rank of general and moved to government, in which he occupied a cabinet post and then a post in the foreign ministry.
Eshki received a scholarship to pursue doctoral studies in the US where, in 1982, he became an advisor to the Saudi ambassador to Washington at the time, Prince Bandar Bin Sultan.
Upon his return to Saudi Arabia he was appointed head of the Saudi Institute for Strategic Studies. He was often a member of the delegation accompanying King Faisal on official visits.
He pursued his studies and research in the military sciences, law and cultural fields and has lectured frequently and authored many studies, articles and other publications.
Since it was initiatively proposed in 2002, the Arab Peace Initiative received no official response from Tel Aviv, whether positive or negative. However, it resurfaced recently in the context of the drive set into motion by the French initiative, which has ground to a halt after a few months in which it failed to achieve progress.
Experts in Cairo believe that there is a change in the Israeli attitude toward the Arab initiative.
With the latest cabinet reshuffle and the return of Lieberman, the Israeli government has issued some positive sounding statements regarding that initiative, even if these have fallen short of demonstrating a willingness to adopt it as a framework for a prospective settlement process.
Eshki, however, is optimistic about the fruits of his visit, the forthcoming climate and even the possibility of activating the Arab Peace Initiative and achieving peace. He believes that the near future could bring a breakthrough if the initiative is given a push. But this requires influential Arab figures.
“I attend international conferences and a participate in meetings with Israelis. We have been able to make 75 per cent (of these Israelis) agree to peace and to the Arab initiative. We made Netanyahu find his own position shaky, which is whyit is important to promote the initiative and seek peace. In fact, [recently] he said some positive things regarding the Palestinians of ‘48 (Palestinians inside Israel) and promised to pay more attention to them. Therefore, we need to continue our work, especially with those who believe in peace and in the Arab Peace Initiative.”
Riyadh has issued no official response to the visit. Nor did it remark on the allusions made by some politicians — including PA President Mahmoud Abbas, during the recent Arab summit in Nouakchott — to a possible process of Saudi-Israeli normalisation.
Meanwhile, analysts in Israel and elsewhere have interpreted Eshki’s visit as a clear sign of this.
This is the view expressed by Jackie Khouri, an Arab Israeli journalist specialising in Middle East affairs for Haaretz, speaking in interview with the Weekly.
Egyptian experts agree. Eshki could not have moved in that direction without a green light from Riyadh, even if it denies any responsibility or official approval of his visit, they said.
They describe it as a form of “Track 2” action, which is undertaken by private individuals in order to set the stage of a subsequent development but which, for various reasons, cannot be seen as being performed by a government official, or in any official capacity.
If a “Track 2” action fails it causes no major loss of face or damage to relations, and if it succeeds in its purposes, so much the better.
When asked whether the Saudi government had contacted him in any way regarding the visit, General Eshki responded: “No. No agency in the government has called me or commented either positively or negatively.
But they know that I have some political influence and that I have not deviated from their policies.”
On the substance of the visit, Eshki maintains that he had not discussed more than his faith in peace and the need to put the Arab Peace Initiative into effect.
However, some argue that there is a Saudi and Israeli convergence in their animosity toward Iran and that visits of this sort may work to promote coordination between the two countries’ responses to Iran’s regional policies.
Eshki disagreed. “I do not believe that Saudi Arabia and other Islamic countries are aligned with Israel against Iran. It is true that Iran is a common enemy for both Saudi Arabia and Israel. However, the Israelis have their viewpoint and we have ours.”
How does Eshki evaluate the results of his visit in the final analysis?
On the whole, good: “The morale of our brothers in Palestine has improved and the Palestinian cause is once again at the centre of attention. We made many Arab intellectuals think carefully and clearly about why they are not taking initiatives to promote peace. It is possible to accept relations with Israel if Israel applies the principles of the Arab Peace Initiative, which is the decisive criterion and can put an end to Israeli ambitions.”
Concluding his interview, he stressed: “I would like the Arab League to issue a resolution sanctioning visits to areas under the control of the PA, and also to Jerusalem, so that Israel doesn’t have them all to itself.”