Middle East

Saudi Arabia

A Prince's Olive Branch

Arab League Summit Beirut
Left to Right: Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz (seated), Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal, and Arab League Secretary General Amr Moussa just before the closing session of the Arab League summit in Beirut, March 28, 2002. The 22-nation summit unanimously approved the Saudi-proposed initiative for peace with Israel (Photo: AFP).

In a surprising development in the intensifying Arab-Israeli conflict, Saudi Arabian Crown Prince Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz leaked to New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman a plan for Arab nations’ normalization of relations with and recognition of Israel. The proposal calls for Israel’s withdrawal from lands occupied in 1967 and the establishment of a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Abdullah plans to formalize this offer at the Arab Summit in Beirut on March 27-28. In a press conference on March 19, Amr Musa, the secretary-general of the Arab League, indicated that Abdullah’s plan will get strong support in Beirut.

Contrary to common belief, Saudi Arabia has been no stranger to the peace process, albeit usually behind the scenes. As Aluf Benn commented in Israel’s Ha’aretz (Feb. 19), a U.S. official reportedly advised the Israeli government “[to] lay off Saudi Arabia. It’s not your enemy….Saudi Arabia may be extremist in religion, but it is politically very moderate, and it’s important not to act against it.” Abdullah has been credited in both the Arab and American press with being the impetus for President George W. Bush and Secretary of State Colin Powell to verbalize their vision of a Palestinian state.

liberal, Tel Aviv, Israel
pro-government, Amman, Jordan
pro-government, Amman, Jordan
pro-Palestinian Authority, Jerusalem, Israel
Al-Sharq al-Awsat
Saudi-owned, London,

While the reaction to Abdullah’s peace proposal has been tremendous, the offer contains nothing new. It essentially advocates the guidelines of U.N. Security Council Resolutions 242 and 338, which also formed the basis of the September 1993 Declaration of Principles (DOP) between Israel and the PLO and undergirded the Oslo peace accords.

Arab and Israeli analysts have pored over the Saudi plan to divine its significance for such thorny issues as secure borders for Israel, the status of the Golan Heights, and the right of return of Palestinian refugees to their pre-1948 homes in present-day Israel. In this vein, Tariq Musarwah warned in Al-Ra’i (Feb. 21), “The problem which we have repeated…has been subdividing the [Arab-Israel] conflict into disparate elements, between [Israeli] withdrawal from occupied lands and withdrawal from the [West Bank and Gaza] territories.”

Abdullah’s initiative contained a number of important subtexts. First, the offer was not made directly to Israel but leaked to Friedman, who is seen by the Arab press as a proxy for Bush. Musarwah of Al-Ra’i put it bluntly: “It was directed to the United States and not to Israel” (Feb. 19). Arab commentators view Abdullah’s leak as a goad to the Bush administration to become more active in the peace process. Writers such as Yasser al-Za’atirah in Al-Dustour (Feb. 14) and Sulayman Arabiyat in Al-Ra’i (Feb. 26) emphasized Friedman’s role as a go-between for the White House and Arab leaders.

Second, numerous Arab writers noted that Abdullah’s proposal vitiates the long-standing claim that Arab states have neither worked for peace initiatives nor desired peace with Israel. Ghazi al-Qusaybi, the Saudi ambassador in London, wrote in an op-ed in Al-Quds (Feb. 20) that Abdullah’s proposal silences critics who have suggested that Arab leaders always look to the United States for a solution to their problems.

Third, Abdullah’s proposal arose at least in part to ease Saudi Arabia’s uncomfortable position in post-Sept. 11 global politics. A Feb. 26 Ha’aretz editorial took this perspective: “[T]here is nothing like a conciliatory gesture toward Israel to improve the image of a fundamentalist, Muslim dictatorship.” The proposal succeeded in deflecting the intensely critical interna-tional media scrutiny from Saudi Arabia.

Fourth, the Saudi plan renewed international scrutiny of Israel’s motives. Abdullah was essentially daring Israel to fulfill the DOP: If Israel truly wanted peace, then why delay the fulfillment of the DOP for so long? Abdullah’s offer would have no timetables or delays, which have proved ineffective in the past. This is Israel’s historic opportunity to settle the conflict and conclude peace with the most important regional economic and Islamic state in concert with other Arab states. Furthermore, as Ma’an Abu Nuwar wrote in Al-Ra’i (Feb. 28), Sharon’s avoidance of this new peace initiative would jeopardize his government and reflect badly on Israel’s supposed desire for peace with its neighbors.

Whether or not Abdullah has taken an unprecedented step among Arab leaders toward peace with Israel, it would be a mistake, according to Turki al-Hamad writing in Al-Sharq al-Awsat (March 3), to view Abdullah as another Anwar Sadat. In reference to suggestions for an exchange of visits between Riyadh and Jerusalem, Al-Hamad reminded readers that Sadat had nationalist motives for his peace initiative. First and foremost, he wanted to recover the Sinai from Israel; the Palestinian question was peripheral for him. Egypt is also a “confrontation state,” meaning that it borders and must deal with Israel. Saudi Arabia fits none of these descriptions.

In light of the mounting violence in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and general Arab mood, Saudi Arabia had excuses not to extend a hand to Israel. Yet Abdullah did so. Al-Hamad argued that unlike Egypt and Jordan, Saudi Arabia will get no direct benefits from peace. He concluded that Abdullah is motivated by the resonance of the Palestinian plight in the Arab and Islamic community as well as by a desire for finalizing peace and ending the conflict.

Ultimately, some Israeli as well as Arab analysts have concluded that Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon is the major obstacle to breathing new life into the peace process. Akiva Eldar, writing in Ha’aretz (Feb. 26), reviewed the Israeli prime minister’s political record, noting that Sharon “never voted for any peace agreement, including the one with Egypt, and…abstained on the peace treaty with Jordan.

Why should the Saudi plan be treated with any more respect than the Egyptian-Jordanian plan, the French initiative, the Peres-Abu Ala outline, or Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak’s new idea?” Eldar concluded, “Israel’s citizens must first of all replace the present government.”