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A path emerges to Mideast peace

Vice President Cheney begins a Mideast tour on Sunday as Arab foreign ministers meet in Cairo.

By Cameron W. BarrStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / March 8, 2002


There is a way out of the Israeli-Palestinian maelstrom.

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If Saudi Arabia's Middle East peace initiative is carefully nurtured, analysts say, it could provide a viable framework for peacemaking. But its success depends on the kind of support the initiative receives from Arab states, the US government, and Israel's "peace camp" - those who favor a negotiated solution with the Palestinians.

No one is sanguine about all these elements coming together, but the three-week-old initiative is maintaining at least some momentum. President Bush and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak discussed the idea in Washington this week, Arab foreign ministers will focus on the matter this weekend in Cairo, and Vice President Dick Cheney will address it during a Middle East tour that begins Sunday.

"Any initiative that comes from the Arab world makes me considerably more optimistic," says Ze'ev Maoz, an Israeli political scientist, "because it has the potential ... to lower the psychological barriers that many Israelis have in terms of making concessions for peace."

The conflict is reaching its most intense level since it began more than 17 months ago. Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon says he wants to "beat" the Palestinians until they sue for a cease-fire. Israeli forces are using warplanes, helicopters, and tanks to assassinate suspected Palestinians militants, raid Palestinian refugee camps, and demolish structures associated with Yasser Arafat's Palestinian Authority.

The Palestinians have carried out numerous suicide bombings, sniper attacks, and indiscriminate shootings this week. The rhetoric of Palestinian militants suggests they remain committed to using force to oppose Israel's occupation of their lands.

The overall death toll is approaching 1,400, of whom more than three-quarters are Palestinians. Nearly 120 lives have been lost over the past week.

In the midst of this bloodshed, Mr. Arafat and Mr. Sharon are saying little about the idea aired three weeks ago by Saudi Arabian Crown Prince Abdullah bin Abdel Aziz al-Saud: If Israel were to withdraw fully from the West Bank and Gaza Strip and allow the Palestinians to have their capital in Jerusalem, the Arab states would make peace with Israel.

While the initiative ultimately revolves around an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal, analysts identify three key forces whose handling of the initiative at this stage may determine its fate.

The Arabs: On Tuesday, Syria's president, Bashar al-Assad, endorsed the Saudi plan, improving the chances that Arab leaders will reach a consensus in its favor when they meet in Beirut at the end of March.

Mr. Assad's expression of "satisfaction" followed a meeting with Prince Abdullah, and he may have heard mollifying words about two Syrian concerns: that there be no compromise on the return of all the Syrian land now in Israeli hands, and that the right of Palestinian refugees to return to homes inside Israel be respected.