Saudi Arabian Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal tells TIME that he is optimistic about this week's Middle East peace conference in Annapolis because of what he calls U.S. determination "to see this through." Continuous U.S. mediation in post-conference negotiations, including pressure on Israel, he says, "can turn things around" and lead to a comprehensive settlement before President Bush's term expires in 13 months.
But, speaking in Paris just hours before his scheduled arrival in the U.S., Prince Saud warned Israelis that they would have no peace until Israel withdrew from Arab territories captured in the 1967 war. Saud, who will be the highest ranking Saudi to ever attend a peace conference with the Jewish state, added that he would not shake the hand of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert or make a symbolic visit to Jerusalem before a peace deal. "The hand that has been extended to us has been a fist so far," he said. He warned Israelis against seeking a surrender, adding, "We don't need a Versailles for the Arab world, a peace that will only be an instigator of future wars."
TIME: Are you optimistic about Annapolis?
Saud: One of the elements of optimism is the sense of determination of the United States to see this through. Peace without the complete and direct involvement of the United States is impossible. The assurance that it is going to be a comprehensive peace that is pursued, to tackle the main issues of borders, Jerusalem, refugees, is certainly one of the elements.
Did you have reservations about attending?
We were fearful of failure. For us, of course, and what the turn of events after a failure would be. But also for the United States. We were anxious that the credibility of the United States is maintained.
Why were you afraid for yourselves?
We have assiduously worked for a strategy for peace. We have convinced our people of the viability of that strategy. If failure occurred, people would turn away from this strategy. Undoubtedly, failure will increase the trend toward radicalism, and undoubtedly it will provide terrorists with further means of recruitment.
Are you confident in the Bush administration's steering of the peace process?
We have confidence in that. I hope we are proven right. Both sides alone won't reach an agreement. It is obvious from the last 60 years of experience with negotiations. With their continuous involvement, and serious intent, this can turn things around [if the United States really is going to put its weight behind its proposals].
Have Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas achieved anything in their talks?
No, that is one of the great disappointments. Everybody had hoped by the time they reached the conference, that Olmert and Abbas had reached some kind of understanding especially about what needs to be done on the ground, issues like a freeze on settlements, the wall, and other issues that make Palestinian life easier. How reasonable is it to assume that you can have negotiations for removing the occupation and at the same time the Israelis are acquiring more land and building more settlements? Here is an obvious area where an intermediary has to step in and say, "No, this cant be."
Do you think Olmert is sincere?
Israel has to make a choice. They have lived for the last 60 years basing their policy on force. Yet they are not closer to achieving peace or security than they have been in the past. It is time for them to try a different policy, a policy of accepting to live with the Palestinians and live in the neighborhood. We don't need a Versailles for the Arab world, a peace that will only be an instigator of future wars.
What do you think of Olmert?
I don't know the man.
He responded positively to the Arab peace initiative and Saudi involvement in the peace process.
Does he accept the principles of the peace proposal totally? Withdrawal for total peace? This will be a test for him in this next conference.
Will you try to get to know him at the conference, shake his hand and have a chat?
No, this is not theater. We are going seriously for peace negotiations. We are not going there just to take pictures of somebody shaking somebody's hand. We can't give false impressions to people. The hand that has been extended to us has been a fist so far. Once it opens for peace, it will be shaken.
Will you avoid shaking his hand if he approaches you?
I'm not going to be there for theatrical gestures of shaking hands that mean nothing. You shake hands, and it implies that you have agreed on something. We have not agreed on anything yet. Better than shaking our hands, he should respond in honesty to the proposals that we have put on the table.
Shaking his hand could send a signal to Israelis that there is a partner for peace.
We are there to support Mahmoud Abbas, the Syrians, and the Lebanese to get their territory. We are there in all honesty, if peace is achieved, to pursue that what was promised in the Arab peace plan. That is normalization, after the peace. We are not going to be party to gestures that could be interpreted as normalization before peace is attained.
What will the Saudi role be after the Annapolis conference?
Saudi Arabia is not looking for a unique role for itself to play. We will not of course negotiate in place of the Palestinians or the Syrians or Lebanese. But we will help in any way that we can if asked by these sides to help.
Would you visit Jerusalem?
No. Not before peace. We will visit only Jerusalem that is liberated.
What is your time frame for reaching a comprehensive peace agreement?
The time frame is very clear. It is until the end of the Bush administration.
Can it happen?
Of course. Every man on the street and every woman on the street, not only the politicians, knows what the settlement will look like in the end. It just needs the action to bring it about. It looks like the 1967 border, with delineation of that border. It looks for a negotiated solution for the Palestinian [refugees] return. It looks for a return of East Jerusalem as part of the Palestinian territories.
And Arab acceptance of Israel's legitimacy as a state?
Is there flexibility in the Arab peace initiative, or is it "take it or leave it"?
It is a very simple equation. Either Israel wants peace or territory. It can't have both.
With modifications of borders?
This is up to the negotiators, of course.
What does Israel get in return?
We have made clear that peace means more than the end of hostilities. It means normalization. It means open borders. It means all those elements that normal human beings in one neighborhood act with together.
Can you imagine an Israeli embassy in Riyadh, or a Saudi embassy in Israel?
I hope we can imagine that they will withdraw, first of all. And that normalization will come after withdrawal.
You advocate unity between Abbas' Fatah party and Hamas, but how can you have a peace agreement that includes a group that doesn't accept Israel's legitimacy?
You are entering into negotiations where there is a group of Israelis who say they don't want Palestinians in their land and want a Jewish homeland only. You have that kind of position on both sides. We hope reasonable people, people of peace and good faith, will win the day.
If Annapolis doesn't work out, can you just pick this up again, a few years from now?
I think this is really a turning point. The next conflict will be very dangerous. We have seen shades of that. Israel in particular has to worry about that. Some vulnerability appeared on its part in the Lebanon adventure which is not absent from the minds of anybody who wants to do mischief in the region.
So this is the last chance?
I could say that. I think it if it is not the last chance, it is the precursor of the end of the one direction and the beginning of a new direction in the Middle East, and a disturbing one at that.
Is your peace effort driven by fear of Iran?
Peace with Israel has its own conditions and elements that are not connected with Iran. We want to make peace with Israel on its own terms. Iran is a neighbor that we hope we can live in peace and stability with. It takes two to act in this. They have to want the same thing too. The test with Iran is what they do in Iraq.
Can the nuclear dispute with Iran be handled diplomatically, or are you concerned the U.S. will bomb Iran?
We not only think it can be solved diplomatically, but we are working towards that objective. We hope that conflict will be avoided. Conflict in that region will be a disaster for the international community as much as for the states of the region.
Are you encouraged by the efforts of the Iraqi government for national reconciliation?
It needs a government that would leave no stone unturned and move heaven and earth in order to get the national reconciliation going on, and we haven't seen, unfortunately, such an effort until now.