Saudi peace offer gathers backers
EU mediator visits Egypt and Jordan today to discuss the plan.
JERUSALEM AND WASHINGTON
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.Skip to next paragraph
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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.
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."