According to New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, Prince Abdallah demanded a full Israeli withdrawal to the 1967 borders. But, according to Henry Siegman, a senior fellow with the Council on Foreign Relations, unnamed Saudi officials said Saudi Arabia would settle for less. Siegman wrote, "Saudi officials told me that normalization of relations with Israel does not preclude Israeli sovereignty over the Western Wall in the Old City and over Jewish neighborhoods in East Jerusalem. They also indicated that Saudi Arabia would not object to the transfer of small areas of the West Bank to Israel in return for qualitatively and quantitatively comparable territory to be transferred by Israel to the Palestinians, provided such an exchange is the result of a freely negotiated compromise."
Siegman's quotes created a degree of confusion. Edward Walker, president of the Middle East Institute in Washington, attributed them to Prince Abdallah himself, saying: "The Saudi crown prince agreed for the first time to the possibility of land swaps that will take into account the settlements surrounding Jerusalem."
The New York Times stated that: "…the Saudi proposal would allow Israel to retain Jewish religious sites and residential areas in East Jerusalem and even apparently hold on to a compact group of settlements just beyond the 1967 lines in exchange for equivalent territory elsewhere."
But Abd Al-Rahman Al-Rashed, editor-in-chief of the Saudi London-based daily Al-Sharq Al-Awsat, who stated he had spoken to one of Siegman's interlocutors, reported something different. "Prince Abdallah's conversation [with Friedman] was based on the word 'entire,' because this word is everything… It is the key, just as it was the main obstacle in past peace negotiations. If the Israelis want peace, they must give something whole, not a part. They must return the West Bank in its entirety, occupied Jerusalem in its entirety, the Golan Heights in its entirety, and [give] a full Palestinian state…"
The Refugee Issue
A central point in editor-in-chief of the London Arabic-language daily Al-Quds Al-Arabi Abd Al-Bari 'Atwan’s criticism of Prince Abdallah's proposal, was the absence of any mention of the Palestinian refugees. "The Palestinian-Israeli dispute," he wrote, "was never about a full Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank and Gaza Strip, which, after all, constitutes eight percent of historical Palestine [sic]. The dispute was always about the Palestinians' right of return to their homes, in accordance with legitimate international resolutions… The Palestinian issue was always a refugee issue; it was never an issue of land alone. Arab-Israeli wars broke out for a single goal – [the refugees'] return to their homeland and the end of their suffering in the camps. It should be mentioned at this point that the Palestinian revolution broke out from the refugee camps even before the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip in June 1967."
Supporters of the Saudi initiative were unable to completely refute these arguments. Othman Al-Rawwaf, a member of the Saudi "Shura" Council, claimed that solving the refugee problem was implied: "Full withdrawal includes automatic, direct handling of the Jerusalem and settlement issues, and automatic, indirect handling of the issue of refugee return."
A debate arose between the plan's supporters and opponents regarding the optimal negotiations strategy. According to 'Atwan, "even if there was a need to present these ideas, they should have been raised at the negotiating table or in a meeting with the American president, and in exchange for some form of remuneration. Raising these proposals for free, just like that, merely to please a journalist, is embarrassing."
In contrast, Al-Rashed stated that Prince Abdallah had indeed set a price for relations with Israel, and that other countries had normalized relations with it without receiving anything in return: "Israel's relations with Qatar, Oman, Mauritania, Morocco, Tunisia, and other countries… were given practically for free. Yet the new initiative states that in order to maintain relations with the other [Arab countries], Israel will have to pay the full price: land, Jerusalem, and security. If we reject the initiative, and each Arab country begins to recognize Israel, the Palestinians will have nothing left to give in exchange for the required Israeli withdrawal…"
Al-Rashed also argued that Prince Abdallah's initiative gave the Palestinians hope, without which they would be shedding their blood for nothing: "In the interview with Friedman, Prince Abdallah addressed Israeli public opinion… [The prince's] statement that full peace was possible, provided that first of all [Israeli] acts would be stopped, and provided that afterwards Israel would fully withdraw from the occupied Arab lands, undermines Israel's argument regarding the [Palestinians'] use of force, and gives the Palestinians a real opportunity to translate their actions into a political program. Otherwise, what's the use of all these acts, if there is no political plan behind them?"
Of All People, Friedman!
'Atwan was irritated that Prince Abdallah chose to speak with Thomas Friedman regarding the peace initiative. 'Atwan called Friedman "an American journalist accused, until recently, by the Saudi media of hostility towards the [Saudi] kingdom and the Muslims due to his fierce articles criticizing the corruption that is spreading in the ruling Saudi family circles, and his attacks on the Islamic curriculum that manufactures 'terrorists.'" 'Atwan thought that "such an important strategic decision should have remained secret, and been presented to the Arab leaders… at the Arab [League] summit, or in a speech on Saudi television…"
"Prince Abdallah's statements may please the journalist Friedman and the Jewish lobby, which Saudi circles claim is behind the attack on their country. But it is reasonable to assume that they will not please the Saudi citizens. In my opinion, their satisfaction is much more important than that of Friedman, The New York Times, and the Jewish lobby."
Furthermore, 'Atwan argued that the Saudi regime sought to cover up its failure to crack down on the country's corruption and human rights violations and to improve public services, with foreign initiatives "covered by the umbrella of Palestinian legitimacy…" He concluded his article, "I can not but admit that the journalist Thomas Friedman has become the one who sets the agenda for most Arab leaders with his letters, columns, and interviews. It is Friedman who determines for them what they should and should not do. From this day forth, we must read his columns so we know what steps our leaders will take next. Congratulations to Friedman on his achievement."