Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah says that his proposed speech for Middle East peace sits on his desk undelivered.
Never has a non-speech created such a hubbub. European and American emissaries rushed to meet the Crown Prince. Presidents Bush, Mubarak and Katsav have all responded to the non-speech with expressions of support or the desire to explore it further. Ariel Sharon called for a direct meeting with the Saudi Prince.
Optimistically, perhaps the Saudi plan marks the first step out of the abyss that Arafat has dug for the region. We are skeptical, however. The Saudi prince has not revealed details of the plan, only saying that his idea calls for "full normalization of relations" with Israel in exchange for "withdrawal from all the occupied territory, in accordance with UN resolutions, including in Jerusalem."
As editorial writers and columnists click away on their keyboards, Secretary of State Colin Powell cautioned that the Abdullah non-speech was "easily said, but a very difficult concept to get total agreement on... We need to flesh this out more before we declare we have a solution. It isn't a solution in and of itself..."
Powell continued: "The one thing I'm absolutely sure [is that] unless the violence goes down to some level that allows Israel to continue to engage and continue to engage, then all of these various ideas will just peter out. The violence has to go down; the pressure has to remain on Arafat to do as much as he can... But it's important that this process get started, and I think it gets started by Mr. Arafat doing everything in his power, a 100 percent effort, and as close to 100 percent performance as is possible to get the violence under control."
In an interview with The New York Times (Feb. 28), Arafat interpreted the Saudi non-speech differently. He saw it as another means for the world to pressure Israel and to impose a solution on Israel, not for him to change his ways. Asked about the initiative, Arafat responded, "The most important thing that this has been accepted by the Europeans, by the Russians, by the Americans... [T]here must be a very important and very strong and very quick push [on Israel] from outside."
More skepticism: Is the Saudi plan more of the same duplicity we have seen throughout the years – of Arab leaders talking peace to the western media, but thumping the war drum in pro-Arab forums?
On Feb. 27, Saudi Arabia's UN Ambassador Fawzi Shobokshi spoke at the UN Security Council and devoted most of the speech to an attack on Israel. The Associated Press reports that Shobokshi declared that "Israel has no desire for peace," and said that Israel was guilty of "racism" and "systematic terrorism."
Israel's Deputy UN Ambassador Aaron Jacob responded: "If Saudi Arabia or any other country wants to promote peace, then first and foremost they should gain the trust of the people of Israel. Using confrontational language will not advance such a goal."
Speaking in Syria nine months ago, Prince Abdullah declared: "Sharon can do what he likes: for today might be his day. Yet tomorrow, God willing, is ours. Every single drop of Arab blood that has been spilled on our usurped Arab territories will be duly wrested from those who dared to shed it. The womb of every Arab woman carries retribution and every fallen martyr has left behind a loud roar, vibrating in the chest of every child who is looking towards martyrdom."
We are also skeptical if Islamic religious traditions (which much of the Arab world is beholden to) even allow for the Saudi plan. In 1995, the Jerusalem Post reported that the mufti of Saudi Arabia, Sheikh Abdel Aziz Bin-Baz, handed down a religious ruling to the effect that Islamic law does not rule out peace with Israel. However, under pressure from extreme Islamic circles, the sheikh was forced to retract. What he had intended, he explained, was to declare that "peace with Israel is permissible only on condition that it is a temporary peace, until the Moslems build up the [military] strength needed to expel the Jews."
And while some Islamic authorities have so far ordered only men, not women, to become suicide bombers, Palestinians eagerly cite last August's fatwa issued by the Saudi High Islamic Council exhorting women to become suicide bombers as well.
As editorials and columnists discuss Crown Prince Abdullah's speech, it is important to consider the following points:
• Abdullah's plan makes no mention of the refugee issue. Is he prepared to defy Arafat and forego the so-called "right of return" to flood Israeli cities with millions of Arabs?
• The Camp David-Taba negotiations were based on Israel retaining "settlement blocs" and not returning to 1967 lines. Is Abdullah demanding more than the Palestinian negotiators were considering?
• Is Abdullah's plan an opening negotiating position, or are his demands non-negotiable?
• The cornerstone of Middle East negotiations, UN Resolution 242, calls for Israel to withdraw from territory, but not "all" territory back to the June 1967 lines (that Abba Eban once called "Auschwitz lines").
• Abdullah's plan calls for the redivision of Jerusalem.
• Is the Abdullah plan a public relations ploy to ingratiate Western audiences? By sounding the trumpet of peace, the Saudis divert attention from the extensive Saudi involvement in the al Qaeda terrorist organization, where 15 of the 19 suicide hijackers were Saudis, and at least one entered the US on a Saudi diplomatic passport. And by diverting attention from the report in the leading German daily "Die Welt" that Saudi officials have helped place many al Qaeda terrorists in the Ein Hilwe Palestinian refugee camp in Lebanon, and plan to finance their relocation to territory controlled by Yasser Arafat's Palestinian Authority, giving $5,000 cash to each al-Qaeda member willing to be smuggled into the West Bank and Gaza.
• Can Saudi Arabia be considered an honest peace broker, given the revelation (also in Die Welt) that Saudi officials paid Iran $10 million to buy the weapons for the Palestinian Authority that were captured by Israel in the Red Sea on January 3?
• Over the years, Saudi Arabia's refusal to endorse the agreements Israel signed with Egypt, Jordan and the Palestinians slowed movement to regional peace. Are the Saudis ready to lead efforts to achieve a comprehensive regional peace – including pressing Arafat to stop all violence and cutting off economic assistance to Hamas, of which the Saudi government is chief financial backer?