World views collided this month when the mayor of New York City turned down a huge cash gift from a wealthy Saudi prince.
After an Oct. 11 memorial service at the ruins of the World Trade Center, the prince, Alwaleed bin Talal, offered New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani condolences and handed him a check for $10 million. Later that day, he issued a statement calling on the US to "address some of the issues that led to such a criminal attack."
The prince, of course, had specifically in mind US support for Israel. His statement demanded that the US "reexamine its policies in the Middle East and adopt a more balanced stand toward the Palestinian cause."
Giuliani rejected the gift. To do so was absolutely right.
It also was, without doubt, deeply offensive to Bin Talal.
So both sides parted company gritting their teeth. Terrorist icon Osama bin Laden must have loved it. At some point, the US and Saudi Arabia need to fix this tear in their relations. The oil and gas industry should try to help.
There's offense here for everybody. In Bin Talal's culture, rejection of a gift is serious business. And $10 million is a generous gift, even by the standards of Bin Talal's wealth.
In Giuliani's culture, a gift conditioned, even implicitly, on the adoption of some political position looks like a bribe. Bin Talal, despite all his wealth and worldliness, might not have understood that. If that's so, he could not have anticipated the revulsion his coincident offer and political statement would generate in the US.
The prince's miscalculations don't end there. Like many Arab commentators, he insists on pushing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to the front of the US war on terrorism. He wants to make an Arab and Muslim obsession a matter of equivalent American urgency.
He won't succeed. Americans, much as they hope for peace between Israelis and Palestinians, have other priorities. Foremost among them, since Sept. 11, is vanquishing terrorism. To Americans, this isn't about Israelis and Palestinians. It's about mass murderers.
Giuliani was right not to dwell on Bin Talal's foreign policy arguments.
The US is not involved in a political discussion. It is not engaged in a public relations contest. It is at war. And the war is one that the US did not start.
Appropriately, Giuliani focused on Bin Talal's biggest misstep: the outrageous notion that US support for Israel somehow warrants the 5,000 murders of Sept. 11, 2001.
"To suggest that there's a justification for the attacks," he said, "only invites this happening in the future. It is highly irresponsible and very, very dangerous."
Much will improve in US-Arab relations if Bin Talal and other members of the Saudi royal family read Giuliani's words in the context of America's newly invigorated passion for self-defense and nothing more.