The Saudi Who Can Speak Our Language, (Post, Feb. 24, 2002)
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The Saudis and Their Peace Plan
With Youssef M. Ibrahim
Senior Fellow for Middle East Studies, Council on Foreign Relations

Thursday, Feb. 28, 2002; Noon EST

Youssef M. Ibrahim, senior fellow for Middle East Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, was online to talk about the Saudi peace proposal for the Middle East, the state of U.S.-Saudi relations after Sept. 11, and the future of the Saudi Arabia.

His article on Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah, "The Saudi Who Can Speak Our Language," appeared in the Post's Outlook section on Sunday, Feb. 24, 2002.

Ibrahim is a former regional Middle East report for the New York Times, a former energy editor of the Wall Street Journal, and former vice president of British Petroleum.

A transcript follows.

Editor's Note: moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions. Welcome Youssef Ibrahim. To get the discussion going, could you explain what exactly Crown Prince Abdullah has proposed? And could you give us some sense of why his suggestion have aroused such interest among 1)Arabs 2) Israelis 3) President Bush?

Youssef M. Ibrahim: The crown prince basically said if Israel returned to its borders of June 4, 1967 it would get full diplomatic and legal recognition of its borders and formal peace with ALL Arab states signed and sealed. Some have said that the Crown Prince's peace "plan" is aimed more at improving Saudi Arabia's relations with the United States than at restarting Middle East diplomacy. Your reaction?

Youssef M. Ibrahim: It would certainly have this side benefit. But this is a big risk/step by the Crown Prince as it has gone further than any other Arab leader has offered. If it is ignored or failed he would suffer for it internally. In recent weeks, the Washington Post has reported that some Saudi officials would not be unhappy to see U.S. military forces leave the country and that the Saudi government is committed to hosting U.S. forces for the foreseeable future. How do you see the future of the U.S.-Saudi relationship? How would it be affected by U.S. military action against Iraq?

Youssef M. Ibrahim: The number of American troops in Saudi Arabia is no more than 6,000. This is not a MAJOR issue or topic of conversation. But Saudi Arabia would NOT allow a return of anything like the 500,000 U.S. troops in any campaign to oust Saddam Hussein. Short of that I think the issue of the troops there now are just used as political football between the two parties. People in Saudi Arabia are not concerned with that as they do have some 6 million expatriates there after all, with several hundred thousands Westerners among them.

Lancaster, Pa.: These broad, overarching proposals are always wonderful, but the devil tends to be in the details. Do you think it is possible that the Saudi proposal, even if both sides support it, could end up leaving both the Israelis and Palestinians in the same position? I am particularly referring to the details of the Israelis withdrawing from significant portions of the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, and Gaza.

Youssef M. Ibrahim: More than that. Withdrawal from Syrian occupied territories is a problem too. I think the idea is great , but without massive U.S. and European involvement and pressure, it will not work.

Paris, France: Well now we are right in the heart of the subject! It's a big risk for the Saudis to say that if Israel goes back inside the 1967 borders ALL the Arab countries will establish normal diplomatic relations and live side by side in peace. We've been hearing for years that if Israel would just go back to those borders there would be no more conflict in the Mideast. Now this very "promise" is announced as a big breakthrough. Please explain.

Youssef M. Ibrahim: a Pan-Arab total agreement to recognize Israel is a big deal. It may not be possible, but if all Arab countries agree collectively, that is novel.

Washington, D.C.: Has there been any backlash in other Arab nations against Saudi Arabia for involvement in peace negotiations?

Youssef M. Ibrahim: Amazingly NO. So far there has been nothing but support, but I suspect that this is because many Arabs believe the Israelis will reject the plan , so why put themselves out.

London, England: The Saudi proposal really seems to have ignited Israeli public opinion, if not its leaders. Why do you think this is? The Saudis are not proposing anything about restraining Hamas or Fatah; it's the same 'leave your security in Arafat's hands' approach. Nor has Israel's existing peace treaties with Egypt and Jordan benefited the country much, as trade and tourism is pretty limited between the states; it would be foolish to think that ties with the other Arab states would be much different. So why are Israelis so fascinated by the Crown Prince saying nearly the same thing that King Fahd said during the 1980s?

Youssef M. Ibrahim: I think the situation has gone totally out of control, that is why. The level of violence we are seeing is a serious menace to the whole region. Furthermore, both sides are tired of this as clearly no one can win this . There is hope that it may shift the momentum. Hope, is a precious commodity now out in the Middle East

Washington, D.C.: Abdullah may be a promising de facto ruler, but we have to remember he's in his late 70s. And, as I understand it, leadership passes from oldest to next oldest brother. When Abdullah dies or becomes incapacitated, who is next in line? And, is that person deemed likely to be a strong and popular ruler who would or could continue Abdullah's possible detente with Israel? How about the next in line after him?

Youssef M. Ibrahim: Prince Sultan the defense minister is next in line. Saudi royalty rules by consensus. this decision has been discussed widely among the ruling generation and is , I believe, even more strongly supported by the younger princes who want to move on with economic development.

Alexandria, Va.: Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon told an EU representative that he would be pleased to meet with a Saudi representative either publicly or discretely to find out about this plan.

Is there any possibility that the Saudi government would agree to meet Israeli representatives either in public or in private?

Youssef M. Ibrahim: in a very discreet way at a lower level only until, at least, they make sure the outcome is success as opposed to embarrassment.

Arlington, Va.: I'm totally sympathetic but don't you do more harm than good when you paint a little known autocrat from a monarchical family as the second coming? I mean, who voted for the House of Saud? and more importantly, if that were put to a vote, who would? (Ex. them) Democratization needs to take hold in Saudi Arabia and if Abdullah doesn't do it, then we leave as opposed to being kicked out.

Youssef M. Ibrahim: The issue of democracy first then peace or peace first then democracy is like the China debate. Economic welfare first or democracy first. I think the Chinese model is working. In the Middle East peace would go a long way to allow for liberalization , more democratic practices and greater role for civil society. War, or near war with Israel, prevents any of this process. So it is not the matter of one person. I think all Arabs -- and Israelis -- are exhausted. It is time to stop.

Silver Spring, Md.: Does the Prince envision Israeli withdrawal from all of East Jerusalem? I read "access" to Jewish holy sites would be guaranteed. Would this be the same "access" that Jews had to their holy sites pre-1967 when those sites were desecrated and access was denied?

Youssef M. Ibrahim: These details are yet to be discussed. But the offer is peace for withdrawal and peace certainly means access by Christians, Jews and Muslims to their holy sites in Jerusalem. Can't see it in any other way.

Arlington, Va.: To your mind, what is more important about the Saudi overture, the proposed details or the fact that the Saudis are offering it?

Youssef M. Ibrahim: The offer.

Harrisburg, Pa.: How stable do you believe the Saudi government is, both in its ability to resist internal dissent and in its commitment to favorable relations with the United States?

Youssef M. Ibrahim: "Experts" have predicted the imminent fall of the Saudi government for as long as I have been a reporter. It is in my view far more stable than most other regimes in the region.

Dubai, United Arab Emirates: Crown Prince Abdullah is no Anwar Sadat both because he cannot and does not lead his country in the same manner that Anwar Sadat led Egypt in 1977 when he went to Jerusalem. So, how can the west and Israel take him seriously as a "visionary" leader for his proposal when the domestic opponents to his "peace proposal" -- fundamentalist Wahhabis, disenfranchised Shiites, and Saudi nationals not part of the Saudi clan -- are the same ones that question the very legitimacy of his and his family's rule? I don't take him seriously.

Youssef M. Ibrahim: We are far from the point where he is going to pray in Jerusalem. But this is a serious offer precisely because of the context of your comments. He has made it publicly despite the opposition. It is getting debated widely as you know in the whole region. This is no secret. Everyone is opining on it. So far the opposition has been "minimal?" I would say so. Youssef, I'd like to go back to something you said earlier: That the Saudi peace plan would require "massive European and American involvement and pressure." What form would that involvement and pressure and take?

Youssef M. Ibrahim: This benign neglect -- let them sort it out -- anything but Clinton, attitude has got to stop. America is the only country that can tell Israel and Palestine We sell arms, we give aid, we have troops over there. The US cannot be ignored if it says : here's the deal . We want it done. the European who give a lot of money and have a lot of trade can swing behind that with more of that kind of pressure.

Annandale, Va.: What are your thoughts about the recent poll that stated only 18 percent of the people in several Muslim countries believed that Arabs were responsible for the Sept. 11th attacks? Personally, I'm surprised that 18 percent (in mostly dictatorial countries without free press) were willing to go on record and admit what is obvious to the rest of the world. Do you think the other 82 percent also know that Arabs were involved but just won't (or can't) say so for various reasons?

Youssef M. Ibrahim: Call it the OJ SIMPSON syndrome. A lot of people say it for other reasons to settle scores with America that have much to do with Palestine. I believe it is the other way around. Most Arabs know bin Laden was behind it and most, certainly now, feel this was a crime the world, particularly the Arab and Muslim world, have paid for dearly.

Cork, Ireland: The Saudi Plan will succeed or fail on the ability to remove the Israeli settlements in the Occupied Territories. Israel is paralyzed by division. Is there any real prospect of the U.S. political establishment putting real pressure on the Israelis? Would a Saudi threat to remove U.S. bases or to seek independent rapprochement with Iraq be an effective spur if all else failed?

Youssef M. Ibrahim: Indeed the settlements in the Occupied Territories are in my view the main issue. Your question is a good one. At least the U.S. should stop their continued expansion which is still going on. In return Palestinians should halt attacks on settlers. I don't think this is tied to the issue of troops or U.S. bases in the Gulf region. That is what bin Laden is trying to suggest, but I don't think anyone has bough his views.

Centreville, Va.: What is the position of Hisbollah, Islamic Jihad and Hamas about the Abdullah Plan? Has Saudi Arabia said that they will stop funding these activists?

Youssef M. Ibrahim: Their position is that resistance stops if occupation ends. I would find it hard for them to take a position that goes beyond that at the moment or later, especially if, and this is a big IF , this initiative succeeds.

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