Saudi peace offer gathers backers

EU mediator visits Egypt and Jordan today to discuss the plan.

By , Staff writers of The Christian Science Monitor , Staff writers of The Christian Science Monitor

By spelling out a straightforward deal in which the Palestinians get their state and the Arab countries make peace with Israel, Saudi Arabia's de facto ruler has infused a lifeless Middle East peace process with new vitality.

Crown Prince Abdullah bin Abdel Aziz al-Saud's vision of peace is not a new one. But it may break a year-long impasse in efforts to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The Saudi leader has turned the US-endorsed logic of mediation - achieve calm first, then talk peace - on its head.

Since he came to power last March, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has insisted that a complete cessation of violence precede any discussions about a peace deal. The Palestinians continue to object, saying that cease-fire efforts are doomed without a sense of where they would lead. But the US has backed the Israeli approach, and American mediators have devised ineffectual mechanisms to stop the killing.

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Now Abdullah is circumventing Mr. Sharon's approach by fast-forwarding to a discussion of the endgame of Middle East peace. He made his views known in an interview with New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman that appeared on Feb. 17, but his intervention is only now gaining momentum.

Yesterday, Javier Solana, the European Union's foreign policy chief and an energetic promoter of Middle East peace efforts, rearranged his travel schedule to meet with Abdullah in Jeddah.

The Saudi prince "said he will work from now onwards to present the initiative" to the annual Arab state summit in Beirut on March 27 and 28 so it can be "presented by all Arab countries" as a joint peace plan, Mr. Solana's spokeswoman told Agence France-Presse.

Mr. Sharon, indirectly breaking a public silence about the Saudi initiative, told Mr. Solana Tuesday that he found it "interesting." Other Israeli officials have been much more enthusiastic, as have members of the Palestinian leadership.

US officials, after displaying only tepid interest last week, are concentrating more seriously on the Saudi proposal. On Tuesday, President Bush called Abdullah about the proposal. But the US remains adamant that it is part of a "goal" or "vision" that does not replace a peace process where the need now is to end violence and reestablish mutual trust.

That may be so, but diplomats in Jerusalem say that the Saudi initiative seems to have reminded Israelis and Palestinians alike that a peaceful future could indeed await them.

Secretary of State Colin Powell tried to do something similar in a speech last November that included a demand that Israel end its occupation of Palestinian lands and a reference to the "state of Palestine." The idea was to create what diplomats call a "political horizon" - a clear sense of what lies at the end of a process of compromise and reconciliation. "The Saudis are also stating a vision," says one State Department official, speaking on condition of anonymity, "perhaps as much to the Israeli people as anyone else, of how, from out of the violence, peace can be reached."

Where Powell's words failed to inspire, however, Abdullah's initiative appears to be doing so. "It seems to have caused a certain amount of excitement and acceptance in the Arab world," says Henry Siegman, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York who queried his Saudi contacts to elaborate and clarify Abdullah's proposal in another New York Times article last week.

One reason for this enthusiasm is that the proposal is exactly in tune with what most Arabs have long demanded of Israel: that it pull back to the borders it maintained on the eve of the 1967 Arab-Israeli war, and allow the Palestinians to have their capital in Jerusalem. In exchange, Abdullah said, the Arab states would normalize relations with Israel.

This deal is tougher for Israelis to accept, to say the least. Still, says Danny Ayalon, Sharon's foreign policy adviser, "we do not sit idle and we are looking in the appropriate channels - discreet ones as well - to see if there is indeed a [substantive] proposal."

The main problem, say observers, is that it is hard to conceive of Sharon making peace as Abdullah envisions it. The Israeli premier holds an "undivided" Jerusalem as an article of faith and has long insisted that many of Israel's 1967 territorial gains are necessary for its security. "I don't see any Israeli government that would agree to the pre-1967 lines," asserts Mr. Ayalon.

Even so, two prominent members of the Israeli Labor Party, Foreign Minister Shimon Peres and Defense Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer, have spoken glowingly about the Saudi initiative. Although they are members of Sharon's "unity government," Labor historically has shown itself more willing than the Likud bloc to consider significant Israeli concessions.

Observers such as Abdel-Monem Said, director of Egypt's Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies, say they hope that the Saudi offer will enliven the Israeli left to topple Sharon. The idea would be for Labor to "push Israel into elections in which hopefully [its voters] will choose peace."

US officials say the Saudi proposal needs to be further clarified, something they expect will occur when Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak visits Washington Friday and when Vice President Dick Cheney travels to the Middle East, including Saudi Arabia, in mid-March.

And while US officials insist the Saudi initiative stands alone, the US may be gauging how it affects other goals.

"It's hard to know if [the US] is really interested in this [Saudi proposal] or more in the public relations aspects. But if the US is really going to take on Saddam Hussein, it would be nice not to have Arab-Israeli issues on hot-boil at the same time," says William Quandt, a Middle East expert at the University of Virginia.

The more cooperation the US can establish with Arab countries in pursuit of their proposals for achieving peace between Israel and the Palestinians, he says, the easier it would be to rally the Arab states to a campaign against the Iraqi president.

Mr. Quandt says that not just Arabs but Europeans and others are looking for something new from the US to calm the violence in the Middle East. He says the cease-fire mechanism devised by an international committee led by former US Senator George Mitchell, the centerpiece of US diplomatic activity in the region, is "not a very useful apparatus. It would have worked by now if it were going to."

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