Saudi peace strategy for Mideast emerges

Saudi Arabia seems to be practicing an increasingly popular Arab political pastime: waiting, or discreetly hoping, for President Carter to get re-elected, Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin to fall, and the Camp David autonomy talks to end altogether.

There meanwhile are indications that senior officials in Egypt, if not yet President Anwar Sadat, are beginning to take much the same tack. However, they add the proviso that they are merely waiting, not necessarily hoping, for the possible materialization of the final two items on the list.

The Saudi strategy became clear, Arab and Western analysts on the Middle East maintain, with Crown Prince Fahd's unprecedentedly explicit proposal of peace with Israel, disclosed in a recent interview with Washington Post chairwoman Katherine Graham.

The Saudi leader's message, as Arab experts saw it, was pitched first to President Carter, then to President Sadat, and finally to the relatively moderate Israeli Labor Party, which is widely expected to replace Mr. Begin in or before the country's scheduled 1981 elections.

Senior Arab diplomats have told the Monitor that, following the meeting between Mr. Carter and Mr. Sadat in April, an agreed-upon message had been relayed to Saudi Arabia. The tenor of the message was that even though the fervently Islamic oil giant was clearly not about to back the stalled autonomy talks, it should realize that genuine efforts were being made in the context of the negotiations to secure the fair Palestinian peace that Saudi Arabia and other Arabs desire.

The apparent Saudi response: We are ready to put our diplomatic and financial influence behind any peace formula promising fulfillment of longtime Arab demands for a total Israeli withdrawal from territory taken in the 1967 Middle East war.

But the Camp David process, Prince Fahd made clear in the Post interview, still was not seen as such a context. And the present Israeli government was seen as incapable of providing a peace the Saudis, or the rest of the Arab world , could accept.

"If Israel would declare its sincere intention of withdrawing from the lands occupied in 1967, Saudi Arabia would do its utmost to bring the Arabs to cooperate and work for a full settlement," said Prince Fahd, in effect chief executive of Saudi Arabia for the ailing King Khalid.

Prince Fahd rolled back on past Saudi demands for on-the-ground evidence of a total Israeli withdrawal. He also suggested an alternative peace "framework" to Camp David -- the purposefully vague United Nations Resolution 242 of 1967, already accepted by Israel, Egypt, Jordan, and Syria.

All in all, it was a very safe offer, Arab and Western diplomats pointed out.

Prince Fahd knew that -- occasional sabre-rattling and contradictory public statements notwithstanding -- the main Arab combattants in the Middle East arena are ready for peace, and ready to accept Resolution 242 as its framework, if they are convinced Israel will accept the idea of a total withdrawal.

The Saudi leader also knew that there was not the slightest chance Mr. Begin would accept that condition -- which to the Islamic Saudis, would also entail Israel's pullout from the eastern, formerly Arab, half of the disputed holy city of Jerusalem.

Finally, Arab analysts argued, Prince Fahd knew that United States pressure on Israel, seen as indispensable to any overall peace with the Arabs, was all but impossible so long as President Carter was caught in a difficult presidential campaign.

Conversations with Egyptian, Palestinian, and other Arab officials suggest that much of the rest of the Arab world had already come to these conclusions.

"The major Arab parties," said one Arab analyst, "are all convinced there will be no real negotiating movement before the US presidential elections, and almost certainly before Mr. Begin is gone."

Mr. Begin's response to Prince Fahd was a rejection of the withdrawal demand, coupled with a clearly academic invitation for the Saudi leader to visit what he sees as "occupied" Jerusalem. Of more interest to the Saudis and other Arabs was the response of opposition Labor Party leader Shimon Peres.

Mr. Peres told the Post he thought Israel should initially respond by offering to work, piecemeal, for peace via Resolution 242.

The question was whether a Labor government could come closer to offering the kind of peace Prince Fahd has in mind.

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