The question ”Have you broken into my desk?” coming from the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia to an American columnist might seem unusual. It was, however, the start of a story that ended with the members of the Arab League approving a plan for peace with Israel at their summit ten years ago. A month before the Beirut Summit in 2002, Thomas Friedman was received by King Abdullah, then the heir apparent of Saudi Arabia. According to Friedman’s February 17, 2002 New York Times column, “An Intriguing Signal From the Saudi Crown Prince,” he floated the notion, said to originate in private dialogue among some Arab League members, of a “clear cut proposal to Israel to break the Israeli-Palestinian impasse.” This is what Friedman said he summed up for the Saudi leader:
“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 accord with U.N. Resolution 242, for full peace between Israel and the entire Arab world. Why not?”
Crown Prince Abdullah responded, “with mock astonishment,” that such a proposal was what he had in mind and that the speech was already written and in his desk drawer. The future King told Friedman, “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.”
Arab Peace Initiative Turns Ten: A Conversation with Thomas Lippman
[SUSRIS] What was the significance of the Abdullah Peace Plan, which was adopted as the Beirut Declaration by all members of the Arab League in March 2002?
[Thomas Lippman] When the Arab League unanimously agreed to endorse the so-called Abdullah Peace Plan, it seemed to me it was an important break-through, at least in a psychological sense. When Anwar Sadat was looking for ways to make peace with Israel, he used to say that a big part of the problem was psychological rather than military. It turned out he was right. That was what he did with his trip to Jerusalem. In this case, the Israelis had always believed – and I think with some justification – that the Arabs collectively would never accept the legitimacy of Israel’s existence. If you recall, after the 1967 War, the same Arab League had unanimously adopted the so-called “Three Noes” policy – no peace, no recognition, no negotiations with Israel. That had been their policy as far as I know until Abdullah changed it. So the idea that the Arabs collectively, including countries that had formerly been in the so-called rejectionist front, were now willing to make peace with Israel was an important psychological break through and took a lot of historical debris off the table. It was, however, on terms that were different from the terms Israel wanted.
[SUSRIS] There was already a Saudi plan proposed in 1981, the King Fahd plan. How is that relevant to what happened twenty years later?
[Lippman] Well to tell you the truth, 1981 was not a propitious time. And in 1981, I don’t believe that the Saudis or any other force could have rounded up the collective Arab sentiment in the same way. The Iranian revolution was still fresh and people were worried about that. You had trouble in Lebanon, Hafez Assad was still the President of Syria, Gaddafi was still young and strong. I don’t think the Fahd plan was going to have legs at that time.
[SUSRIS] Why didn’t the plan put forward by then Crown Prince Abdullah have any traction in 2002 with Israel or the United States?
[Lippman] I think the main reason was that while everyone respected Abdullah, Saudi Arabia was not Israel’s big problem. Their problems were Hezbollah and Hamas and their immediate neighbor, the Syrians, and there was a strong feeling if I recall correctly that even if they had a peace agreement with Saudi Arabia, it wouldn’t bring peace to the Israelis because the Saudis couldn’t deliver the other elements that would be required, including the Hamas faction of the Palestinians. When all the other Arab countries got on board, and presumably would have been willing or at least required under a peace agreement to curb the so-called non-state actors, then you had a different situation.
[SUSRIS] What about the concerns that Israel just was not interested in rolling back settlements and that the 1967 borders were not something they were interested in?
[Lippman] That was true then and is true now. But that’s not to say there weren’t a lot of serious negotiations. I mean, if I recall correctly, the terms offered by Ehud Barak when he was prime minister were quite forthcoming, given the historical record. And that didn’t go anywhere either.
[SUSRIS] What relevance does the Abdullah Peace Plan of 2002 have today? Could it resurface as the basis for a settlement?
[Lippman] It would take a remarkable turn about. First of all, even for Saudi Arabia, it’s not on the front burner at the moment. The front burner right now is taken up by Iran and Syria. Right behind that is probably Yemen. And since no one knows where we’re going to be with Egypt a year from now, this is just not the time when this is going to be pursued in any way. The Israelis also have their minds elsewhere. I just don’t think that this issue is really in the forefront of anybody’s agenda now. So even if the Israelis were inclined to pursue this initiative, which they’re not, I just don’t think that this is a good time. The long-term significance of it, though, is that it spells out the conditions that really are the bottom-line if you’re ever going to have a full settlement of this.
At the end of the day, remember Sadat set a high barrier, namely return of every last square millimeter of Egyptian land and he held on for that, and in the end he got it. It’s really hard, especially when the Arabs themselves are so divided over the details, to see that the plan wouldn’t require some adjustment. But in any case this has to be pretty close to the long-term Arab bottom-line. I don’t see that there’s any wiggle room especially for the Saudis. They are, after all, engaged something like a world-wide contest with the Iranians for supremacy of the Islamic peoples. They can’t give more than this without getting some major moves in return from Israel. That is just not in the cards as long as Likud is running the Israeli government.
[SUSRIS] Saudi Arabia’s standing in the world has grown and it has become more self-confident. Was the Abdullah Peace Plan a marker in some way that the Kingdom was emerging to take a more pronounced role?
[Lippman] I would say a couple of things about that. First, go back and look at the timing. You noted this was the tenth anniversary, right? Well that puts the plan’s origins right after the shock of 9/11. So the first thing this did, in my opinion, was help to sanitize the reputation of Saudi Arabia in the United States after 9/11. That had to help. If you look at the 2010 arms deal, the biggest arms deal ever, I doubt that that would have rolled through Congress virtually unopposed if Abdullah had never done this. A lot would have been different if the Saudis hadn’t offered unquestioned recognition of Israel and offered to make peace with it.
So that did a lot. I also remember the circumstances under which it came out, the famous “speech in my desk drawer” column by Thomas Friedman. So within the ruling circles of Saudi Arabia, what if anything had been done to develop consensus on a peace plan. What was the preparation for Abdullah doing that or was he totally winging it? I don’t know the answer to that. I don’t know that we’ll ever know that. But it certainly was an important sign that Abdullah, then crown prince, was willing to think outside the box. And we’ve seen a lot of that since then.
[SUSRIS] Since then Saudi Arabia certainly has become of major player not just in the Arab world but on the World stage.
[Lippman] I agree with that completely. First of all, you can’t dispute their rise in significance economically, now that they’re members of the WTO and the G20. Beyond that politically, partly because of their own creative diplomacy and willingness to take some risks and partly because of the vacuum that exists where Egypt used to be, the Saudi role I think has been greatly enhanced.
About Thomas W. Lippman
Thomas W. Lippman is a senior adjunct scholar at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington. His career in journalism at the Washington Post included four years as the Washington Post’s Middle East bureau chief, three years as the Post’s oil and energy reporter and a decade as the newspaper’s national security and diplomatic correspondent, he traveled extensively to Saudi Arabia. He is the author of “Arabian Knight: Colonel Bill Eddy USMC and the Rise of American Power in the Middle East,” “Inside the Mirage: America’s Fragile Partnership with Saudi Arabia,” ” Madeleine Albright and the New American Diplomacy,” ” Understanding Islam, and Egypt After Nasser”. A writer and journalist specializing in U.S. foreign policy and Middle Eastern affairs, he lives in Washington, DC.
About “Saudi Arabia on the Edge”
SAUDI ARABIA ON THE EDGE
The Uncertain Future of an American Ally
BY THOMAS W. LIPPMAN
Of all the countries in the world that are vital to the strategic and economic interests of the United States, Saudi Arabia is the least understood by the American people. Saudi Arabia’s unique place in Islam makes it indispensable to a constructive relationship between the non- Muslim West and the Muslim world. For all its wealth, the country faces daunting challenges that it lacks the tools to meet: a restless and young population, a new generation of educated women demanding opportunities in a closed society, political stagnation under an octogenarian leadership, religious extremism and intellectual backwardness, social division, chronic unemployment, shortages of food and water, and troublesome neighbors.
Today’s Saudi people, far better informed than all previous generations, are looking for new political institutions that will enable them to be heard, but these aspirations conflict with the kingdom’s strict traditions and with the House of Saud’s determination to retain all true power. Meanwhile, the country wishes to remain under the protection of American security but still clings to a system that is antithetical to American values.
Basing his work on extensive interviews and field research conducted in the kingdom from 2008 through 2011 under the auspices of the Council on Foreign Relations, Thomas W. Lippman dissects this central Saudi paradox for American readers, including diplomats, policymakers, scholars, and students of foreign policy.
- An Intriguing Signal From the Saudi Crown Prince – Thomas L. Friedman – NYTimes – Feb 17, 2002
- U.S. envoy: Arab peace initiative will be part of Obama policy – Haaretz.com
- Khartoum Resolution – 1967 Arab League – The Three Noes – CFR Essential Documents
- Mideast Turmoil: Arab League; Arabs Approve an Offer to Israel With Conditions It Has Rejected – NY Times – Mar 29, 2002
- Arab states unanimously approve Saudi peace initiative – Haaretz.com – Mar 28, 2007
- Impasse in Israel: Diplomacy — U.S. Is Talking Up Plan From Saudis on Mideast
More on SUSRIS with Thomas Lippman:
- Saudi Arabia’s Nuclear Policy – Lippman – SUSRIS – Aug 5, 2011
- The Challenge of Change in Saudi Arabia: A Conversation with Thomas Lippman – SUSRIS – March 2, 2011
- A Conversation with Thomas Lippman – SUSRIS – Sep 10, 2010
- Business Forum Perspectives – Lippman – SUSRIS Exclusive Interview – Apr 28, 2010
- Middle East Peace and the U.S.-Saudi Relationship: A Conversation with Thomas Lippman – SUSRIS Exclusive Interview – March 2, 2009
- Exclusive – Leadership Transitions: A Conversation With Thomas Lippman – January 9, 2009
- Exclusive – Arabian Knight: Colonel Bill Eddy USMC and the Rise of American Power in the Middle East – A Conversation with Thomas Lippman – Sep 15, 2008
- Exclusive – The Proud Heritage of Aramco: A Conversation with Thomas Lippman – SUSRIS Interview – May 30, 2008
- “Good Morning, Mr. President” Thomas Lippman’s Briefing for POTUS – SUSRIS IOI – January 11, 2008
- Exclusive – Political and Economic Developments in Saudi-US Relations – A Conversation With Thomas Lippman – SUSRIS Interview – Sep 29, 2007
- Discovery! The Search for Arabian Oil – Wallace Stegner – Foreword by Thomas Lippman – SUSRIS IOI – Sep 18, 2007
- Exclusive – Determined to Remain Friends – A Conversation with Thomas Lippman – Exclusive – SUSRIS Interview – Aug 7, 2007
- A New Regional Leadership – Thomas W. Lippman – SUSRIS IOI – May 10, 2007
- Exclusive – Region in Crisis: Fine Lines and Consequences – A Conversation with Thomas W. Lippman – SUSRIS Interview – Aug 2, 2006
- Exclusive – Crawford Summit Perspective: A Conversation with Thomas Lippman – SUSRIS Interview – May 9, 2005
- Exclusive – Insight on the Kingdom from the Author of Inside the Mirage — A Conversation with Thomas Lippman – Part One – SUSRIS Interview – March 30, 2005
- Exclusive – Insight on the Kingdom from the Author of Inside the Mirage — A Conversation with Thomas Lippman – Part Two – SUSRIS Interview – Apr 18, 2005
- Exclusive – U.S.-Saudi Relations: A Glass Half Empty, Or Half Full? – An Interview With Thomas Lippman – SUSRIS Interview – Aug 28, 2004
- Thomas Lippman – “Inside The Mirage” – US-Saudi Relations — SAIS Panel – SUSRIS IOI – Dec 16, 2003