Person of the Week: Crown Prince Abdullah

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Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah bin Abdulaziz

By simply restating an old formula for Middle East peace at a critical moment, Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Abdullah bin Abdulaziz Al Saud not only grabbed this week's headlines, he shifted the terms of debate on the troubled region and caused something approaching a diplomatic earthquake felt in Jerusalem, Cairo, Europe and Washington.

The 78-year-old prince, widely regarded as the de facto leader of Saudi Arabia, simply suggested that the Arab world would normalize relations with Israel if the Israelis withdrew to their 1967 borders. That was, in essence, a restatement of U.N. Resolution 242, which guided the Oslo peace process and was restated as U.S. policy by Secretary of State Powell last October. The sweetener, perhaps, was the notion of "normalization" rather than simply 242's requirements for recognition of Israel and peace. That, and also the prince's suggestion that he would use his considerable political clout to persuade the Arab League to endorse his view.

It may seem somewhat unlikely that a dinner conversation between a Saudi prince and a New York Times columnist could have such profound diplomatic consequences. (Abdullah's offer first came to light in conversation with the Times' Thomas Friedman.) Ariel Sharon was cajoled by the positive reaction of much of the Israeli political establishment — and, perhaps more importantly, by the same from the Bush administration — to take the offer seriously. EU security chief Javier Solana flew to Riyadh to discuss ways of promoting the initiative. And renewed talk of peace deals even appears to have sparked a mud fight between the Bush administration and its predecessor — presidential spokesman Ari Fleischer was forced on Thursday to retract an earlier statement implying that the Clinton administration had helped spark the intifada by pushing too hard for a final peace agreement.

Despite its casual dinner-table origins, Crown Prince Abdullah's proposal was a canny intervention, right down to the choice of Friedman — one of Saudi Arabia's most persistent critics in the U.S. media since September 11 — as his messenger.

The U.S. war on terrorism has put relations with Saudi Arabia under a critical spotlight, to the chagrin of the traditionally pro-U.S. royal family. But the alliance between the House of Saud and Washington was under strain long before September 11, because of mounting anti-American sentiment among many ordinary Saudis. And no single issue ignites their anger more than the perception that the U.S. has sided with Israel in a war against the Palestinians. The Saudis have privately chided the Bush administration's disengagement from an active peace-brokering role. They fear that the deteriorating situation in the West Bank and Gaza imperils their own ability to support American initiatives, no small matter in a year in which the U.S. will need Saudi support for any intervention in Iraq. Crown Prince Abdullah's intervention appears to signal that the price of such support will be renewed efforts to achieve peace between Israel and the Palestinians.

Like the Europeans and even Israeli foreign minister Shimon Peres, the Saudis believe that a ceasefire won't take hold in the absence of a clearly visible peaceful path to Palestinian statehood. Instead of waiting for the Bush administration to restart political negotiations, Crown Prince Abdullah has stepped into the vacuum by restating the simple proposition that there'll be no long-term peace while Israeli soldiers and settlers continue to occupy the bulk of the Palestinian territory captured in 1967.

And, in a sense, he's daring the Americans to disagree. Judging by the reaction of the Bush administration, the prince caught them off guard. They've been forced to welcome his initiative even alongside extensive disclaimers about the details.

Nobody's expecting Ariel Sharon to sign on to the plan. A champion of Israeli settlement outside the 1967 borders who fiercely rejected the Oslo agreements from the very outset, there's little for Sharon to like in Abdullah's proposal. But by pitching it directly to the Israeli people, he managed to generate significant domestic pressure on Sharon to take it seriously. (And it's worth remembering that the peace plan being touted by Peres is based on the same principle as Abdullah's.)

By week's end, of course, automatic rifles were speaking more forcefully than diplomats, and skeptics rushed to interpret the fierce battles in two West Bank refugee camps on Thursday as having eclipsed the ray of hope sent by Abdullah's proposal. Supporters, however, will see the latest escalation of violence in the territories occupied by Israel since 1967 as underscoring the prince's basic argument. Israelis and Palestinians may be fighting more fiercely than ever, but to the extent that they're talking about a long-term peace, the discussion has been dominated this week by Prince Abdullah's proposal.