Earlier this week, I wrote a column suggesting that the 22 members of the Arab League, at their Summit in Beirut on March 27 and 28, make a simple, clear-cut proposal to Israel to break the Israeli-Palestinian impasse: in return for a total withdrawal by Israel to the June 4, 1967, lines, and the establishment of a Palestinian state, the 22 members of the Arab League would offer Israel full diplomatic relations, normalized trade and security guarantees. Full withdrawal, in accordance with UN Resolution 242, for full peace between Israel and the entire Arab world: why not?
I am currently in Saudi Arabia on a visit - part of the Saudi opening to try to explain themselves better to the world in light of the fact that 15 Saudis were involved in the September 11 attacks. So I took the opportunity of a dinner with Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince, and de facto ruler, Abdullah bin Abdulaziz Al-Saud, to try out the idea of this Arab League proposal. I knew that Jordan, Morocco and some key Arab League officials had been talking about this idea in private but had not dared to broach it publicly until one of the big parties - Saudi Arabia or Egypt - took the lead.
After I laid out this idea, the Crown Prince looked at me with astonishment and said: "Have you broken into my desk?" "No," I said, wondering what he was talking about. "The reason I ask", he said, "is that this is exactly the idea I had in mind - full withdrawal from all the occupied territories, in accordance with UN resolutions, including from Al-Quds, for full normalization of relations. I drafted a speech along those lines. My thinking was to deliver it before the Arab Summit and try to mobilize the entire Arab world behind it. The speech is written, and it is in my desk. But I changed my mind about delivering it when Sharon took the violence, and the oppression, to an unprecedented level."
"But I tell you," the Crown Prince added, "if I were to pick up the phone now and ask someone to read you the speech, you will find it virtually identical to what you are talking about. I wanted to find a way to make clear to the Israeli people that the Arabs don't reject or despise them. But the Arab people do reject what their leadership is now doing to the Palestinians, which is inhumane and oppressive. And I thought of this as a possible signal to the Israeli people."
"Well," I said, "I'm glad to know that Saudi Arabia was thinking along these lines, but so many times in the past we've heard from Arab leaders that they had just been about to do this or that but that Ariel Sharon or some other Israeli leader had gotten in the way. After a while, it's hard to take seriously."
So I asked, what if Mr. Sharon and the Palestinians agreed to a cease-fire before the Arab Summit?
"Let me say to you that the speech is written, and it is still in my drawer," the Crown Prince said. "I pass all of this on as straightforwardly as I can, without hype or unrealistic hopes."
What was intriguing to me about the Crown Prince's remarks was not just his ideas - which, if delivered, would be quite an advance on anything the Arab League has proposed before - but the fact that they came up in the middle of a long, off-the-record conversation. I suggested to the Crown Prince that if he felt so strongly about this idea, even in a draft form, why not put it on the record - only then would anyone take it seriously. He said he would think about it. The next day his office called, reviewed the Crown Prince's quotations and said: go ahead, put them on record. So here they are.
Crown Prince Abdullah is known as a staunch Arab nationalist. He has a strong Arab following inside and outside the Kingdom, and if he ever gave such a speech, it would have a real impact on Arab and Israeli public opinions. Crown Prince Abdullah seemed to be signaling that if President Bush took a new initiative for Middle East peace, he and other Arab leaders would be prepared to do so as well.
I also used the interview with the Saudi leader to ask why his country had never really apologized to America for the fact that 15 Saudis were involved in 9/11. "We have been close friends for so long, and we never expected Americans to doubt us," he said. "We saw this attack by bin Ladin and his men as an attack on us, too, and an attempt to damage the U.S.-Saudi relationship. We were deeply saddened by it and we never expected it to lead to tensions between us. But we've now learned that we respond to events differently. . . . it is never too late to express our regrets."
As for the 'axis of evil' and reports of a possible U.S. military strike against Iraq, the Saudi leader said: "Any attack on Iraq or Iran should not be contemplated at all because it would not serve the interests of America, the region or the world, as there is no current evidence. Iraq is contemplating the return of the inspectors, and the U.S. should pursue this because inspectors can determine if Iraq is complying with the UN resolutions."