Al-Ahram Weekly Online
18 - 24 October 2001
Issue No.556
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875 Current issue | Previous issue | Site map

Big bad apple

New York's rejection of a Saudi prince's charity has led to a war of words between the prince and the mayor of the Big Apple, writes Thomas Gorguissian from New York

Thomas GorguissianThe tale of the prince and the mayor was the talk of the town in New York and around the nation last weekend, particularly when it was revealed that $10 million were involved. "I believe the government of the United States should re-examine its policies in the Middle East and adopt a more balanced stance toward the Palestinian cause," Saudi Prince Al-Waleed Bin Talal said. The prince made these remarks in a statement that accompanied his donation of $10 million to relief efforts during his visit to ground zero, the site where the World Trade Center stood.

In that same statement Bin Talal also said, "Our Palestinian brethren continue to be slaughtered at the hands of Israelis while the world turns the other cheek and looks the other way."

When New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani was informed of the prince's statements, he announced that he was turning down the donation. And at a news conference held that same day, Giuliani said, "Not only are those statements wrong, they are part of the problem."

The American "We are at war" slogan has become a factor in this incident, as well. The sixth richest Saudi prince responded with a concerted public relations campaign that landed him on numerous American television news programmes where he explained his gesture and accompanying statement.

Last Friday Bin Talal told NBC News that Mayor Giuliani had erred by refusing the money. "What I am saying is America has the right to defend itself, but at the same time you have to understand the motives of the terrorists... If you're going to talk about terrorism, we have to look at its roots," said the Saudi prince.

Even people who are sensitive to the Palestinian cause questioned the timing of the prince's remarks and his making them in conjunction with the donation.

Giuliani, who seldom misses an opportunity for grandstanding, a proclivity bolstered by his current popularity, capitalised on the wave of patriotism sweeping America and publicly rejected Bin Talal's cheque. Speaking at a press conference, Giuliani said, "There is no moral equivalent to this attack. There is no justification for it... The people who did it lost any right to ask for justification for it when they slaughtered four or five thousand innocent people. To suggest that there is any justification for it only invites it to happen in the future." He added, "One of the reasons I think this happened is because they [the hijackers] were engaged in moral equivalency and do not understand the difference between liberal democracies like the United States and Israel, and terrorist states and those who condone terrorists."

As the imbroglio continued, the prince told CNN, "Favoritism for Israel is not helping a lot because you have to understand that Arabs who watch Palestinians being slaughtered in their tents every day, truly believe that the United States is Israel's main backer."

During another show on CNN, Larry King Live, in which Bin Talal and Giuliani both appeared, the prince said that the controversy surrounding his donation had gotten "out of hand," and the mayor had misunderstood his gesture. Bin Talal added, "It's my duty and responsibility to convey that message to America openly." For his part, Giuliani reiterated his earlier arguments, saying, "It seemed to me this would be the wrong kind of money to take if it's being premised on ideas like that."

Former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak also appeared during the same episode of Larry King Live, saying, "Oh, I salute Mayor Giuliani. He did the right thing. I believe that many honest Americans and New Yorkers feel the same." Barak continued his propaganda war: "I believe that it is time to begin to tell the truth and stop this Orwellian doublespeak about the Middle East. We are the victims of Palestinian terror. Our kids and innocent civilians are victims of suicide attacks. And it is time to just begin telling the truth." He concluded by saying, "There is no moral equivalence that could be drawn between the perpetrators of terror and those who respond against it."

As the issue of Bin Talal's donation degenerated into a kind of three ring circus, the State Department took pains to distance itself from Giuliani's decision, emphasising that it had not been consulted in the matter.

However, State Department spokesman Richard Boucher told the daily briefing: "We do object to Prince Al-Waleed's remarks. We find his remarks on the Middle East highly inappropriate. We find those kind of remarks highly objectionable." Boucher added, "What we find objectionable is linking the 11 September attacks with Israeli policy or US policy in the Middle East. We think there's no excuse for the murder of innocent civilians. I think history has shown that Al-Qa'ida is out to kill Americans whatever is going on in the Middle East and they could [not] care less about most of the governments in the Middle East who are working for peace."

The next day, Bin Talal told the Saudi newspaper Okaz:, "The whole issue is that I spoke about their position [on the Middle East conflict] and they didn't like it because there are Jewish pressures and they were afraid of them." And, as expected, Gulf papers criticised Giuliani, reminding their readers of his actions in 1995, when he had Yasser Arafat, the Palestinian leader, thrown out of a concert for world leaders at the Lincoln Center during the United Nations' 50th anniversary celebration.

The outcome of this incident merely reaffirms the status quo before it began: both the prince and the mayor appeared as heroes in the eyes of their people.

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