Saudis patiently push plan

Saudi Arabia urged world powers yesterday to force Israel to evacuate West Bank territory.

Spearheading the most credible Mideast peacemaking effort since the resurgence of the Israel-Palestinian conflict 19 months ago, Saudi Arabia is patiently but inexorably bringing Arab neighbors together around a single peace plan.

Saudi Arabia is working closely with the US to build behind-the-scenes momentum toward its March peace initiative, says Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal. The plan calls for Arab nations to recognize the Jewish state, if Israel withdraws fully from Arab territory occupied in the 1967 war.

"If there is any hope or remaining optimism for peace, it is because of the position of the Arab countries," says Prince Saud, in an interview between trips at his plush Jeddah residence on the western Red Sea flank of this vast desert kingdom.

Since Crown Prince Abdullah – the de facto leader of Saudi Arabia – met with President George W. Bush late last month at his ranch in Texas, a division of labor has emerged: Saudi Arabia is focusing Arab pressure on Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, as long as the US knuckles down on Prime Minister Sharon's military moves.

Since then, Saudi leaders have:

• helped earlier this month broker the end of the five-month Israeli siege of Mr. Arafat's office in Ramallah;

• been in "constant" daily contact with the Palestinians, insisting that Arafat do what he can to stop violence and to reform his Palestinian Authority and security forces; (Despite this, there was another suicide attack in Israel on Sunday. But US officials reacted in a lighter way. National Security Advsier Condoleeza Rice suggested the bombings were beyond Arafat's control.)

• been instrumental in getting Syria to reject "all forms of violence," which diplomats read to include suicide bombings;

• weighed in, along with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, to help forestall an invasion of the Gaza Strip earlier this month;

• and been in daily contact with Washington, pushing the Bush administration to pressure Sharon to end Israeli military incursions.

"We are doing everything that is necessary, but every time we make a step towards compromise and peace in the Arab world, [Israel Prime Minister Ariel] Sharon steps back and raises the ante," Prince Saud says, noting that Israeli raids continue in Palestinian towns, along with more casualties.

"That is something unacceptable," Prince Saud says. "The Arab countries can't continue this policy, in the face of this disregard and these actions by Mr. Sharon."

A 'very significant' plan

The result is heavy telephone diplomacy with Washington, even as Saudi Arabia seeks to bridge Arab differences. Arab foreign ministers met in Beirut on Saturday. Arab League Secretary-General Amr Moussa ruled out a summer peace conference proposed by the US and European Union while Israel is still engaged in "occupation, murder, and sabotage"; Prince Saud reportedly did not rule out the meeting.

The Saudi peace plan is "very significant," a US official here says, because it may spell the end of the rejectionist Arab camp that refuses to make peace with Israel. "[Saudi Crown Prince] Abdullah has a lot of credibility in the Arab world. He is beyond the vision thing. He is hitting the phone."

Continued Israeli raids and Palestinian suicide bombings underscore the need for credible, mutual peace moves – and more American pressure – Saudi officials say. Sharon has rejected any return to pre-1967 borders, the key to the Saudi land-for-peace equation.

"We are daily in contact with [the Americans]," says Prince Saud. "They have shown that when they want to act, they can act decisively. We hope this is one of those moments when decisive action is taken."

For Saudis, an unfamiliar role

But the risks of calling for peace with Israel are great, analysts say, especially for a nation that, as custodian of Islam's two most holy sites at Mecca and Medina, carries a special weight across the Islamic world.

"It's got to be heady for Abdullah these days," says Gregory Gause, a Saudi Arabia expert at the University of Vermont. "He is the only Arab leader who has any influence at all on President Bush – so it must be tempting for him to play that role.

"But that's a role very foreign to the Saudis, because it puts you out there, in front," Mr. Gause says. "If you are going to be the one Arab leader that can move Bush, Bush is going to expect you to do things in the Arab world that are very un-Saudi, like 'Make Arafat do something,' or 'Bring the Arabs to make gestures toward Israel.' The Saudis have never done that."

Instead, Saudi peace moves have been episodic. The current plan resembles one put forward by King Fahd in the late 1980s. Saudi Arabia also helped broker a Lebanon peace deal.

But stepping into the limelight is a rare and not altogether popular move in the kingdom, analysts say.

"In domestic terms, [Crown Prince] Abdullah may be out on a limb, but he felt it had to be done, and has enough popular support to get away with it," says a European diplomat.

While the extent of its ability to influence Arafat is not yet clear, Saudi Arabia could bestow a key Arab part of the peace puzzle: "Saudi could give Arafat the right to negotiate the future of Jerusalem," the diplomat says.

Anger runs deep

Saudis across the land have been riveted by the Israeli-Palestinian crisis. They are bombarded daily by television images that show stone-throwing Palestinian youths, lightly armed gunmen, and suicide bombers, battling Israel's modern tanks.

Many Saudis have reacted with their checkbooks. More than $85 million was raised here during a recent government-sponsored telethon to help Palestinians. And charities have sent millions more to help Palestinian "martyrs."

Equating America's heavy military and cash support for Israel with the Israeli occupation, many Saudis are serious about boycotting American products and companies.

Despite popular anger against the US over its backing of Israel, Saudi officials say that US intervention in Mideast peace will be key, and acknowledge that President Bush is the first US president to call for a Palestinian state. "In the Arab world, we understand this as a fact of life, that America stands with Israel," says Prince Saud, in the interview. "But the real point here is whether this relationship is used to advance peace, or if it will be used to hinder peace."

A regime seeks credibility

Though heading a nation that uses the Koran as its constitution, Saudi leaders have been accused in the past by hardline Islamists and other critics of being corrupt and illegitimate, and of being too close to the West. The peace effort is one way to consolidate credibility on the Arab street – though not all here support it.

"The growing intifada has done more to threaten this regime than at any time since 1979," when anti-regime radicals took control of the Grand Mosque at Mecca, says the US official. "They are doing what you would expect them to do: plead with the US to put a cap on it." Decisive moves for peace are a turnaround for Saudi Arabia, one of the first nations to sever ties with Egypt in 1979, after its historic peace deal with Israel. Saudi Arabia only restored ties in 1987. Crown Prince Abdullah reportedly refused a request from then-President Bill Clinton to meet Israeli officials.

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