Sunday, May 07, 2017


Beside the fact that Donald Trump choosing Saudi Arabia for his first foreign visit is revealing in its own right, there are various signals (e.g. the remarks of the Saudi foreign minister in Washington DC when the visit was announced) that the visit will lead to another run at the "Arab Peace Initiative" as a potential solution to the Israel-Palestine issue.

This initiative certainly makes for "sounds reasonable" reading, but the origins of this initiative need to be remembered: it emerged in 2002, 6 months after 9/11, with eyes in the White House already looking at Iraq, and needing something that could realign Arab opinion given the centrality of the Palestinian issue up to that point.

And then some strange things happened. Tom "Air Miles" Friedman wrote one of his fantasy memo columns, published 6 February 2002, a letter from George W. Bush to Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah, King Abdullah of Jordan, Bashar al-Assad, and Hosni Mubarak, and the rest of the Arab League. That list of addressees tells you something.

Anyway, Friedman's fantasy memo proposed that Israel would withdraw to its pre-1967 lines in exchange for full recognition by the Arab world. There was some murkiness about what would happen to the displaced Palestinians, but that was glossed over.

Friedman then published a more famous column 2 weeks later, from Riyadh, where Crown Prince Abdullah (RIP) flattered his visitor by implying he was so clairvoyant about Saudi thinking that he must have broken into his desk -- because Abdullah was about to propose exactly what Friedman wanted at the Arab League summit in Beirut the following month. That proposal became the "Arab Peace Initiative" and the basic outlines have remained the same over the following 15 years.

Yet its provenance does merit some scepticism about its viability. From the appearances of the time, it was an idea that went from a New York Times opinion column into a proposal of monarchs and dictators while suiting the interests of the Saddam-obsessed White House. Donald Trump is not one for subtlety and nuance, but someone maybe should tell him where the peace deal that he's about to champion came from. 

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