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Date posted: March 26, 2007
By Thomas Friedman

Is Saudi Arabia becoming the new Egypt?

Thats a question you hear more and more these days in Arab circles, as Saudi Arabias King Abdullah becomes more diplomatically active and Egypt, the traditional leader of the Arab world, becomes more diplomatically passive.

In recent months, weve seen Saudi Arabia publicly blast Hezbollah for launching an unprovoked war on Israel; weve seen King Abdullah forge a cease-fire between Hamas and Fatah in Gaza; weve seen him try to tame Irans president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and there are rumors that a top Saudi official met with Israels prime minister, Ehud Olmert. That meeting was apparently in preparation for the Arab summit in Riyadh, March 28-29, which King Abdullah will be hosting to revive his February 2002 peace overture to Israel of full normalization of relations in return for full withdrawal from the occupied territories.

Since Egypt, for now, seems to be adrift, and the Saudis seem to be afloat in oil revenues, its not surprising to see Saudi Arabia becoming more assertive. It could have real benefits given the Saudis standing in the Muslim world provided that the leader of Saudi Arabia is ready to do what the leader of Egypt did when it comes to making peace with Israel.

What the moribund Israeli-Palestinian talks need most today is an emotional breakthrough. Another Arab declaration, just reaffirming the Abdullah initiative, wont cut it. If King Abdullah wants to lead and he has the integrity and credibility to do so he needs to fly from the Riyadh summit to Jerusalem and deliver the offer personally to the Israeli people. That is what Egypts Anwar Sadat did when he forged his breakthrough. If King Abdullah did the same, he could end this conflict once and for all.

I would humbly suggest the Saudi king make four stops. His first stop should be to Al Aksa Mosque in East Jerusalem, the third holiest site in Islam. There, he, the custodian of Mecca and Medina, could reaffirm the Muslim claim to Arab East Jerusalem by praying at Al Aksa.

From there, he could travel to Ramallah and address the Palestinian parliament, making clear that the Abdullah initiative aims to give Palestinians the leverage to offer Israel peace with the whole Arab world in return for full withdrawal. And he might add that whatever deal the Palestinians cut with Israel regarding return of refugees or land swaps so some settlements might stay in the West Bank in return for the Palestinians getting pieces of Israel the Arab world would support.

From there, King Abdullah could helicopter to Yad Vashem, the memorial to the six million Jews killed in the Holocaust. A visit there would seal the deal with Israelis and affirm that the Muslim world rejects the Holocaust denialism of Iran. Then he could go to the Israeli parliament and formally deliver his peace initiative.

Of course, I have no illusions about this. But is it any more illusory than thinking that the incrementalism of the last seven years is going to get anywhere? Now thats a fantasy. Yes, Al Qaeda would denounce King Abdullah. What else is new? The Saudi ruling family is going to have to decide: Is it going to spend the rest of its days tiptoeing around Al Qaeda, or is it going to confront it ideologically head on? Many more Muslims would applaud the Saudi king for such an overture. And I have no doubt that Israels majority, which was ready to evacuate Gaza for nothing, would demand that the Israeli government respond positively to an Abdullah initiative delivered in this way.

This would also be a vehicle to tell Hamas to put up or shut up. It is one thing for Hamas to reject the Oslo peace accords. But how could it reject a peace overture to Israel presented by Saudi Arabia?

King Abdullah first unveiled his peace proposal in an interview he and I did in his home in Riyadh in 2002. As we sat by his desk, he told me he was motivated to propose full peace for full withdrawal to the Israelis because I wanted to find a way to make clear to the Israeli people that the Arabs dont 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, it is time to go beyond signals. If the Saudi king just wants to score some points, he will hold the Arab summit, re-issue the peace plan and go home. If he wants to make history and make peace, he will hold the Arab summit, re-issue the peace plan and deliver it in person.

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By the Same Author

Date: 26/03/2007
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Source: New York Times, 23 March. 2007
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