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Background: Proposing Mideast Peace

March 5, 2002 at 12:00 AM EST
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ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: The cycle of violence and bloodshed continued in the Middle East, as world leaders sought ways to defuse the violence.

Attacks today claimed lives on both sides– three Israelis were killed in Tel Aviv, and 31 wounded. At least two more Israelis were killed elsewhere, and at least three Palestinians died in gun battles in the West Bank. In Ramallah, a leader of Hamas led a funeral procession for his wife and three children. They were killed yesterday by an Israeli tank shell.

Some 90 people have died in the violence in the past week, two- thirds of them Palestinians. At least 1,000 Palestinians and 300 Israelis have been killed since the Palestinian uprising began in September, 2000.

Against this backdrop, officials in the region and Washington continued to discuss a diplomatic proposal put forward by Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah three weeks ago in an interview with “New York Times” columnist Tom Friedman.

The prince’s plan, though accompanied by few details, would offer Israel normal diplomatic relations with the Arab world in return for Israel’s withdrawal from all territories it captured in the 1967 Mideast War, including the West Bank, Gaza, and east Jerusalem.

The surprise involvement of the Saudis followed growing concern in that country over the deepening Israeli-Palestinian conflict, as this group in Jeddah made clear last month.

SAMAR FATANY, Radio Journalist: This is what is happening. This is how the Arab world feels, because of the images we watch on television of children being killed, more settlements, people being thrown out of their homes. It is just too much for us to take and sit there and watch and do nothing about it.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has said little about the proposal. In the past, he has rejected total withdrawal from the West Bank, but his foreign minister, Shimon Peres, has expressed interest. And a chief Palestinian negotiator has also welcomed the Saudi proposal, but said he wanted to hear more from the Israelis.

Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, who has endorsed the Saudi plan, has been in Washington, meeting with Bush Administration officials this week. He has invited Israeli and Palestinian leaders to hold a summit in Egypt. Mubarak also said Prime Minister Sharon asked him to arrange a secret meeting with Crown Prince Abdullah. Late this afternoon, Mubarak met with President Bush at the White House.

PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: My country has set forth a goal, which I stated last November at the United Nations. We’re committed to two states: Israel and Palestine living peacefully together within secure and recognized borders as called for by the Security Council resolutions of the United Nations. The United States also believes that this goal is only possible if there is a maximum effort to end violence throughout the region, starting with Palestinian efforts to stop attacks against Israelis.

PRESIDENT HOSNI MUBARAK, Egypt: We must bring about an end to the cycle of violence and other hostile actions, and to ensure the resumption of peace negotiations. Nothing can be achieved through violence or resort to force. And the Palestinians are being asked to exert more effort to bring down the level of violence.

The Israeli government should understand that the use of military power and unilateral measures against the Palestinian population– the closure of roads, the siege of towns and villages, the demolition of houses, the collective punishment that make progress more difficult– should stop.

JIM LEHRER: Also this afternoon, Elizabeth talked with Adel al-Jubeir. He’s the foreign policy advisor to Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah. She conducted the interview before President Bush met with Egyptian President Mubarak.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Thanks for being with us, Mr. Al-Jubeir. What’s the background to the Crown Prince’s raising of this proposal now? Why now?

ABDEL AL-JUBEIR, Adviser to Saudi Crown Prince: The Crown Prince was talking about his vision for a final settlement between Israel and the Arab countries. And it happened… Tom Friedman was in the kingdom, and he spoke to him about it, and that’s how it really came about.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Was he discussing this with other people? Some reports have said that Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and the Jordanian King Abdullah have also been involved in talking about this with him. Is that true?

ABDEL AL-JUBEIR: The idea has been discussed in the Middle East for some time. Even Tom Friedman wrote about it two weeks before he spoke to the Crown Prince.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And what does it respond to? What are the main concerns, main reasons for this? It’s a fairly dramatic proposal right now.

ABDEL AL-JUBEIR: Yes. The Crown Prince wanted to send his message to the Israeli public that peace is possible. He wanted to send a signal to the peace camps in Israel and the United States that they shouldn’t lose hope and that they should… and reenergize themselves and redouble their efforts for peace. He wanted to send a signal to governments around the world that should they get re-engaged in the process, that they would find willing partners on the Arab side.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: The word “normal relations” is used, and some people have said that that’s actually one of the most remarkable aspects of this. Is that the proper translation from Arabic, to use… say “full normal relations”– that’s what’s being offered?

ABDEL AL-JUBEIR: That’s correct, but it comes with… at a price. The idea was a total Israeli withdrawal from all the occupied territories that were occupied in 1967, including in Jerusalem, in accordance with U.N. resolutions, in exchange for full normal relations.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And if that happened, Saudi Arabia would be willing to accept Israel as a part of the Middle East?

ABDEL AL-JUBEIR: Yes.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: How much flexibility is there in this proposal? For example, Henry Siegman of the Council on Foreign Relations wrote that Saudi officials have said there would be flexibility, for example, about the Western Wall. Is there flexibility?

ABDEL AL-JUBEIR: The position that we take is that it’s full withdrawal for normal relations. With regards to the details of what happens on the ground, that really is up to Israel and its neighbors. It’s up to the Palestinians to decide how much territory they will accept, and up to the Syrians.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: All right. Let’s talk about what’s happened since we in the United States first heard about this proposal in the February 17 Tom Friedman column. There have been various meetings in Riyadh, right? The CIA Director and the U.S. Assistant Secretary of State have been in Riyadh. What came of those meetings?

ABDEL AL-JUBEIR: Secretary Burns came to Saudi Arabia. A number of other leaders came to Saudi Arabia. The point that we were making is that we should redouble our efforts to push the peace process forward. We have to put an end to the violence, and we have to move the negotiations forward.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And what are you doing specifically in Washington to move it forward now?

ABDEL AL-JUBEIR: Talking to people, showing them that the downside… the risk is tremendous, that the path of violence did not work, and that we should try our best to move the parties toward a political solution.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And we heard today that Syria’s President Assad supports the proposal. What about other Arab leaders?

ABDEL AL-JUBEIR: That’s correct. President Assad has supported it. Most of the Arab leaders have supported it. Leaders of over 40 countries around the world have supported it. Elizabeth, when you look at the last 50 years of the Arab-Israeli conflict, there has not been a statement, an initiative, a vision, or a plan that has gathered as much international support as quickly as this one. And what this tells us is that there is so much desperation on both sides for a way out that they all lined up behind this vision.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Isn’t it important that all the Arab nations support it, in that you’re offering normal relations with the Arab world? Now, Libya’s Leader Qaddafi doesn’t support it; Saddam Hussein doesn’t support it, right?

ABDEL AL-JUBEIR: Well, Mr. Sharon doesn’t support it. Half his government doesn’t support it. I think the important part here is that you have most Arab countries supporting it; you have countries in the Muslim world, like Pakistan, supporting it. You have a total of over 40 countries around the world supporting it. But we don’t see any indication that the Israeli government accepts even the principle of withdrawal.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Is it not true, what President Mubarak said, that he’s been asked to arrange a secret meeting between Sharon and the Crown Prince– Prime Minister Sharon and the Crown Prince?

ABDEL AL-JUBEIR: No, we have not heard this.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: You have not heard that?

ABDEL AL-JUBEIR: No, and we have seen press reports and statements by Prime Minister Sharon asking for a meeting or wanting a meeting, but if anything, this tells us that he’s not serious. If the Israeli prime minister were serious, he would seek a meeting with President Arafat. If the Israeli prime minister were serious, he would make… he would reach out to the Syrians and to the Lebanese and to the Palestinians. Those are the proper addresses for a settlement.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Mr. Al-Jubeir, will the Crown Prince formally present this proposal at the Arab League meeting later this month?

ABDEL AL-JUBEIR: We are moving in that direction, yes.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And you’re trying to come up with a consensus so that it is… tell me how it works. The Arab League meetings work by consensus, right? So you would not bring it up unless you had the support from everybody there?

ABDEL AL-JUBEIR: You try to seek a consensus at the Arab League meetings, but the Arab League took a decision some years back that would… where things can pass by majority vote. Most of the Arab countries have lined up behind this initiative, but once it’s adopted by the Arab League, it becomes an Arab League initiative and it’s essentially binding on most Arab countries.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Mr. Al-Jubeir, some people have criticized this proposal as coming too late, that it should have come out, for example, during the Camp David negotiations in the summer of 2000. What’s your response to that criticism?

ABDEL AL-JUBEIR: It’s never too late to come up with proposals for peace. It’s never too late to come up with a way out for people. It’s never too late to come up with the means to end the senseless killings on both sides. That’s my response to that.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And would you tell us the connection between the proposal and two different things — As you know, I was just in Saudi Arabia, and there has been a lot of criticism from the United States of Saudi Arabia in the wake of the attacks of September 11. Is this… some people, for example, have said that this is a public relations gambit by Saudi leaders because of those attacks. Could you respond to that?

ABDEL AL-JUBEIR: Oh, that’s absolute nonsense. It’s not true. Saudi Arabia has been very vocal in terms of its concern for what is going on in the territories. Saudi Arabia has been very vocal in terms of trying to get the United States, as well as other governments, to get engaged in the peace process between Israelis and Palestinians and Israelis and Syrians. Saudi Arabia has a history of stepping in when things are very difficult and moving the process forward, whether it was in 1981 with the Fahd Plan, which was adopted at Fez, which moved the Arab world collectively from the three no’s of Khartoum and made it possible to even have a peace process. Saudi Arabia was instrumental when it attended the Madrid Peace Conference and the multilateral talks. And so no, the kingdom has historically played a very important role, and this is one of those important roles.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And finally, what are the domestic political considerations in this? A recent Gallup poll showed that 16 percent of Saudis, only 16 percent , have favorable opinions of the United States. There’s really a strong feeling in Saudi Arabia about this. Is that part of what motivates the Crown Prince?

ABDEL AL-JUBEIR: I am glad you asked the question about this poll, because people don’t look at the flip side. Over 90 percent of those who had a negative view towards the United States had that negative view because of American policy, not because of American values. And so they see the images on television in the territories, and they see an action by the United States, and they consequently… it affects their views towards the U.S., I believe, but that’s a temporary situation.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: All right. Thank you so much for being with us.

ABDEL AL-JUBEIR: You’re very welcome.