A Saudi Smokescreen?

DESPITE a need to end a 17-month-long war between Israel and the Palestinians, it's difficult to take seriously a surprise peace plan from Saudi Arabia.

The plan is vague and sketchy, and was only casually mentioned last month to a visiting American columnist, who was allowed a rare interview with Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah.

The interview itself was part of a massive public-relations campaign by Saudi Arabia after Sept. 11, to clear its name in the United States. Osama bin Laden is from Saudi Arabia, as were 15 of the 19 hijackers. And a Saudi brand of Islam seems to breed anti-American militants.

The plan itself is pretty basic, and simply revives the initial hopes of the breakthrough in Middle East peace that took place at the 1991 Arab- Israeli conference in Madrid.

It calls for Arab recognition of Israel in exchange for Israel giving up all or most of the territory it took in the 1967 war. Details beyond that are not widely known. Disputes over details - such as the status of East Jerusalem - have derailed the peace talks under the 1994 Oslo accords.

Even if the plan is just a smokescreen to help the Saudis, European leaders have grabbed onto it as a way to get all sides talking again, and as an incentive to curb the violence.

Talk beats war any day.

The Bush White House remains skeptical, perhaps because it has tied its antiterrorism war closely to Israel's interests, or maybe because it's wisely waiting to see how much Saudi muscle will be used at an Arab summit this month to force other Arab countries to sign onto the plan. An anti-Israel outburst by a Saudi official on Wednesday at the UN Security Council doesn't give much hope of a change in Saudi attitudes.

The Arab-Israeli conflict has seen many false dawns. The dashed hopes among Palestinians for a homeland have only increased their resentment. Skepticism (but not cynicism) toward Saudi motives is justified.

But with no options for peace now, it's worth probing the sincerity and the details of the Saudi vision.

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