On February 17, 2002, The New York Times published an article by columnist Thomas Friedman in which he reported about a conversation he had with Saudi Crown Prince Abdallah bin Abd Aziz Al-Saud. Prince Abdallah told Mr. Friedman that he had drafted a peace proposal which he later delayed because of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's policies. In his draft, he proposed "full Arab normalization with Israel in exchange for full Israeli withdrawal from all occupied territories in accordance with U.N. resolutions." Four days later, The New York Times published an op-ed by Henry Siegman, a senior fellow with the Council on Foreign Relations, in which he detailed his conversations with unnamed high-ranking Saudis. According to Siegman, these sources said Saudi Arabia was ready to be more flexible regarding "full withdrawal" and might accept Israeli sovereignty over the Western Wall and Jewish neighborhoods in East Jerusalem as part of a land swap agreement. The following is an account of the Arab media’s reactions to the new Saudi initiatives.
Abd Al-Bari 'Atwan, editor-in-chief of the London Arabic-language daily Al-Quds Al-Arabi, was critical of the Saudi willingness to "break all the taboos" and normalize relations with "the Hebrew state." He wrote, "Saudi Arabia is not a confrontation state [i.e. bordering Israel], and, unlike Egypt, Syria, Jordan, and the PLO, it is not required to sign peace agreements. Furthermore, Saudi Arabia has always complained about countries rushing to establish normal, or [even] semi-normal, relations with Tel Aviv." In another article, 'Atwan wrote that he wasn't certain that Prince Abdullah was aware of what full normalization meant: "Has it occurred to him that normalization in tourism with the Hebrew state, to which he agreed, means that groups of Israelis will come to Al-Madina to conduct excavations in search of traces of their forefathers, and to hold religious festivals on their holidays in memory of the Bani Qurayza, Bani Qaynuq'a [Jewish tribes in the Arabian peninsula whom the Prophet Muhammad fought in the seventh century], just as they are doing at Djerba in Tunisia and at Abuhatzeira's tomb in Egypt?"
Abd Al-Rahman Al-Rashed, editor-in-chief of the London-based Saudi owned daily Al-Sharq Al-Awsat, refuted this, stating, "Anyone who wants to [criticize Saudi Arabia] by emphasizing the expression 'full relations' with Israel must look at the Egyptian precedent, which is the most important. In effect, what Israel gained from its peace with Egypt is an apartment in Cairo housing the Israeli Embassy, while Egypt got back all of Sinai, with its oil and its access to the Suez Canal. In all truth, ‘full peace’ [with Israel] began and ended with a [heavily] guarded apartment [which serves as the Israeli embassy]. Would the opponents of the Saudi proposal rather leave millions of Palestinians in their refugee camps, besieged and tortured in the occupied lands, than allow Israel to own apartments in the Arab countries?"
Top Palestinian spokesmen welcomed the initiative, but hastened to clarify that it did not mean making any concessions whatsoever – particularly not on the refugee issue. Palestinian International Planning and Coordination Minister Nabil Sha'ath explained, "The initiative should be viewed as an Arab attempt to persuade the Americans that if the Israelis cease their aggression, if they comply with Presidents Yasser Arafat and Bashar Assad and implement all their demands beginning with the demand for withdrawal from occupied Palestinian, Syrian, and Lebanese lands, and if solutions are found for all the problems stemming from the Palestinian cause, first and foremost the refugees issue and Jerusalem – then and only then will the Arabs be willing to maintain natural relations with Israel… [Prince Abdallah's] proposal is absolutely compatible with our positions. We want to bring about an end to the occupation, and we want to solve all the problems, and then, as far as we are concerned, there will be no hindrance to establishing a comprehensive peace, if Israel meets all its obligations."
U.N. Security Council Resolution 242
'Atwan raised another objection to the Saudi initiative: Prince Abdallah had deviated from the parameters of U.N. Security Council Resolution 242. "Prince Abdallah went too far with his proposal and was overgenerous in his 'flexibility.' As far as he is concerned, perhaps, it is permissible to offer the Hebrew state security and recognition of its borders in exchange for a full withdrawal in accordance with the U.N. resolution. But these resolutions do not demand normalization, do not demand establishment of diplomatic relations, and do not demand that all Arab countries should sign peace agreements with the Hebrew state."
In response, Al-Rashed wrote, "The prince has not deviated from what the Arabs have been repeating morning and night by demanding the implementation of Security Council Resolution 242…No [Arab leaders] have ever specified what the implementation of Resolution 242 means, and what it requires. This is what Prince Abdallah did [in his new proposal]."
Al-Rashed continued, stating that actually, Prince Abdallah was demanding from Israel even more than Resolution 242 requires: "Resolution 242, seen by the Arabs in all their official declarations concerning the Palestinian problem, as a basis for a peaceful solution, provides for less than what Prince Abdallah demanded in his proposal. The U.N. resolution [242, whose implementation] we demand, gives us withdrawal without a Palestinian state, on the assumption that the administration of the area [from which Israel will withdraw] would be split between Jordan and Egypt. This will be in exchange for peace and security granted to Israel. Resolution 242 does not define the exact geography of the territory promised to the Arabs, nor does it mention Jerusalem; also [it does not define] the identity of the inhabitants of that land [namely Palestinian]…"
Ghazi Al-Qussaibi, Saudi Ambassador to London, held another view. In an article in Al-Sharq Al-Awsat, Al-Qussaibi quoted Prince Abdallah's words from several conversations with international representatives visiting Riyadh, to support his claim that the prince was demanding a new international resolution to replace Resolution 242. According to Al-Qussaibi, Prince Abdallah said, "…Israel interprets Resolutions 242 and 338 as it sees fit, and in a way essentially different from Arabs' interpretation… [Thus,] the Security Council must make a clear [new] resolution that cannot be interpreted in several ways – a resolution that will set forth full Israeli withdrawal from all the occupied Arab territory, including settlements, and the establishment of an independent Palestinian state with Jerusalem as its capital…"
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"Such a [new] resolution will be a fundamental first step, after which additional steps must come. The second step is Israel's unconditional acceptance of this new resolution… In light of bitter experience [in negotiations since the Madrid conference of 1991], the Palestinians and the Arabs will not agree to negotiations that go nowhere. There must be a clear Israeli commitment to accept the withdrawal and the establishment of a [Palestinian] state. This commitment must come from Israel's constitutional institutions. It is not enough for one Israeli political party to commit to part of the new resolution, while another Israeli political party rejects it out of hand…"
"When a clear international resolution is passed, and when Israel clearly commits to it, it will be possible to consider demanding Arab guarantees to Israelis. Without these two conditions, any guarantee given by the Arabs will be a reward for Sharon's massacres… The Saudi goal was, and remains, to achieve rights for the Palestinian people. Once the [new] international resolution is passed, once Israel's commitment to this resolution is declared, and once an independent Palestinian state is established, Saudi Arabia will not be more [politically hostile toward Israel] than its Palestinian brothers, [and will normalize relations with Israel]. If the international community initiates a clear new resolution, [replacing 242] and if Israel unconditionally accepts this new resolution, [then] the Arabs will take the initiative to guarantee [normalization with Israel]…"
Al-Qussaibi concluded his quotes from Prince Abdallah with a statement of his own, clarifying the chronology of events as they should take place according to Saudi Arabia: "The ball is now in the court of the international community, and will not leave it without a clear new international resolution. Then, the ball will move to Israel's court, and will not leave it without a clear Israeli commitment [to implement that resolution]. Once the ball eventually reaches the Arab court, the world will discover that the Arabs who rewarded the occupation with struggle are capable of rewarding [Israeli readiness for peace] with peace [from the Arab side]… I think this is not merely Prince Abdallah's position; it is the position of the entire Arab nation."