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Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs
Strategic Alliances for a Secure, Connected, and Prosperous Region

Saudi Arabia’s Op-Ed Diplomacy: A Public Relations Ploy or a Serious Initiative?

Filed under: Israeli Security, Saudi Arabia, U.S. Policy
Publication: Jerusalem Issue Briefs

Vol. 1, No. 20


A revealing Washington Post news story on February 26, 2002, reported a striking American public opinion poll claiming that Americans rated Saudi Arabia above North Korea and Syria as a state-supporter of international terrorism. While 64 percent of Americans viewed Iran as a state supporting terrorism, a full 54 percent shared the same perception regarding Saudi Arabia. (North Korea was viewed this way by 38 percent, and Syria received 35 percent, in the Groeneman Research and Consulting poll.) The Saudi Arabian Embassy in Washington was undoubtedly aware of these results as well.

There is little doubt that Saudi Arabia’s difficult position in the U.S. is the main backdrop to what has been called Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah’s Peace Initiative. According to the New York Times op-ed article by Thomas L. Friedman (February 17, 2002) that originally kicked off the speculation about a new Saudi peace plan, the Saudi initiative has not yet really been born. Abdullah prepared a speech for the upcoming Arab summit in Beirut: “Let me say to you that the speech is written, and it is still in my drawer,” Abdullah explained. The essence of his proposal, as reported by Friedman, is: “Full withdrawal from all the occupied territories, in accord with UN resolutions, including Jerusalem, for full normalization of relations.” What was new in this proposal was the term “full normalization,” which appeared to be different from the previous language of “normal relations” used by Egyptian and Syrian diplomats in the past, which essentially meant a “cold peace.” Abdullah was contemplating seeking the backing of the entire Arab world for his proposal.

Despite the fact that Crown Prince Abdullah still has not taken the speech out of his desk drawer, major international diplomatic figures have already commented on its content including President Bush, Secretary of State Powell, and UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan. European Union envoy Javier Solana actually visited Saudi Arabia to speak with Abdullah about the speech that he has not yet given. In a lead editorial, the New York Times acclaimed the new Saudi peace moves. It is rare in international diplomacy that so much credit has been given to a single government for a peace initiative that has not yet been made. At least one Saudi goal was met by this preoccupation with the unborn-Saudi plan: instead of viewing Saudi Arabia in the context of terrorism, Americans were presented with the Saudi kingdom in an entirely different context — as a “peace-maker.” Moreover, the Palestinian issue was returned to center-stage, replacing terrorism as the main issue affecting Middle Eastern stability.

A more detailed glimpse into Abdullah’s thinking, which might have sparked some of this international interest, was provided by Henry Siegman of the Council on Foreign Relations in a second New York Times op-ed article on February 21, 2002. Siegman did not claim in his op-ed that he had spoken to Abdullah for these details, but rather to unnamed “Saudi officials” who asserted: Saudi Arabia does not preclude Israeli sovereignty over the Western Wall or over Jewish neighborhoods in East Jerusalem. Additionally, these officials reportedly stated 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.” Thus, besides “full normalization,” Abdullah seemed to be hinting at territorial flexibility. Indeed, Abdullah seemed to be considering an initiative similar to the Clinton proposals at Camp David, that Saudi Arabia had refused to support in July 2000.


Has Saudi Arabia’s Position Really Changed?

The most serious problem with evaluating the Saudi initiative is that, at present, it is reportedly only a speech in a drawer, reported in twoNew York Times op-ed articles by non-Saudi writers Thomas Friedman and Henry Siegman. Yet there are serious questions about whether the Saudi Arabian position on key issues has changed as reported:

  1. Territorial Flexibility: Adel al-Jubeir, the Foreign Policy Advisor of Crown Prince Abdullah, has provided several interviews about the Saudi plan. But rather than authenticating the territorial concessions that Siegman reports, al-Jubeir preferred to backtrack on whether Saudi Arabia actually is taking any territorial position: “We are not in the real estate or zoning business,” he explained in an interview with the Associated Press (MSNBC, February 27, 2002). He explained that Abdullah was only putting forward a vision and not a blueprint for borders, adding: “It’s really up to Israel, the Palestinians, Lebanon, and Syria to negotiate because it’s their land.” It would be surprising if Saudi Arabia’s Wahhabi clerics would surrender claims to wakf land in Jerusalem, that Palestinian Islamic leaders refused to sanction.

  2. Normalization: Because Abdullah’s thinking was presented in the New York Times in English, it is difficult to ascertain whether he is really thinking about full normalization, as reported, that would go beyond the diplomatic language used by Egyptian and Syrian diplomats. The editor-in-chief of the Saudi-owned daily Al-Sharq Al-Awsat, Abd al-Rahman al-Rashed, has argued that the Saudi plan does not vary from the Egyptian concept of peace (MEMRI, March 3, 2002). A Palestinian draft of a new UN Security Council resolution that is supposed to reflect Abdullah’s plan does not use the term “normalization,” but rather “normal relations.” Regardless, the old Madrid peace process launched in 1991 allowed Israel to enjoy some normalization with Arab states through the multilateral negotiations that included Saudi Arabia. Now, any normalization would be contingent upon Israel agreeing, up front, to full withdrawal. In short, it is far from certain that there is a real breakthrough in this area.


The Risks Posed by Saudi Arabia’s Op-Ed Diplomacy

The main risk posed by the flurry of diplomatic activity surrounding Saudi Arabia’s purported peace plan is its potential erosion of UN Security Council Resolution 242 from November 1967, that served as the cornerstone of every Arab-Israeli peace agreement and of the 1991 Madrid Peace Conference. Should the formula “full withdrawal for full normalization” gain currency, even if this is not exactly Abdullah’s precise intent, pressure will grow on Israel to accept these terms. UN Resolution 242, which was painstakingly drafted by the British in 1967 after months of diplomacy, only required that Israel “withdraw from territories” — not from “the territories” or “all the territories” — to “secure and recognized boundaries.” In fact, a Soviet effort to insert the word “all” was rebuffed. For this reason, American secretaries of state from Henry Kissinger to Warren Christopher have reiterated Israel’s right to defensible borders.

The new Saudi terms of reference, by demanding a territorial withdrawal beyond the requirements of 242, would thus erode Israel’s right to defensible borders that was enshrined in UN Resolution 242. Saudi Arabia’s ambassador to London, Ghazi al-Qussaibi, has verified that this, in fact, is Riyadh’s intent (Al-Sharq al-Awsat, February 19, 2002; MEMRI, March 1, 2002). The Saudi formula, additionally, creates an equivalence between an irreversible concession on Israel’s defense lines in exchange for a reversible concession on normalization (ambassadors can be withdrawn, trade frozen). Were Saudi Arabia more serious about ending its hostility to the State of Israel, it could make discreet direct contact with Israel, as other Arab states have done. Real negotiations are based on mutual compromise, and not on a take-it-or-leave-it offer in an op-ed article of a foreign newspaper.