Saudi peace offer turns heads.

Some six Arab states support a Saudi land-for-peace proposal made last week.

It's the most tantalizing Middle East peace proposal to come along in many a month, and it's going nowhere fast.

A week ago, in a column by Thomas Friedman of The New York Times, Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Abdullah bin Abdel Aziz al-Saud offered Israel a deal: Withdraw to the borders Israel maintained on the eve of the 1967 Arab-Israeli War and the Arab world will make peace with the Jewish state.

It's not a new idea - trading land for peace has long been the often faintly beating heart of Middle East peacemaking - but coming from Mr. Abdullah, the de facto ruler of a powerful bastion of anti-Israeli feeling, it made headlines.

Since then, a half-dozen Arab states have voiced support, although they appear more upbeat about Israeli withdrawal than about normalizing ties. Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat, US Secretary of State Colin Powell, and even Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres have all spoken favorably about the initiative.

From Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, however, there has been silence. "There are certain elements which make it a nonstarter ... from Israel's point of view," says Zalman Shoval, one of Mr. Sharon's foreign policy advisers.

An Israeli foreign ministry official, speaking on condition of anonymity, adds that Abdullah's idea "is not a solution in itself; it's more a supporting or background element," something that might find relevance in the final stages of an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal. "We poor Israelis and Palestinians," the official adds, "are still dealing with the first step, not the last one."

Indeed, the Palestinian Authority yesterday broke off contacts with Israeli officials after Israel's government decided to keep restricting Mr. Arafat to the West Bank city of Ramallah. The impasse stifled recently renewed efforts to get the two sides talking again.

More than a PR ploy?

It has taken a week, but the Israeli media is now addressing itself to the Saudi idea in earnest, and with more enthusiasm than the prime minister. Nahum Barnea, columnist for the mass circulation daily Yedioth Ahronoth, wrote yesterday that "what looked like a brilliant public relations ploy has developed, maybe, a life of its own."

The Ha'aretz daily drew unfavorable contrasts between an idea Sharon voiced on Thursday - the creation of buffer zones to create a "security separation" between Israelis and Palestinians - and Abdullah's offer.

"[Sharon's] response to the Saudi initiative," the paper said, "is a barbed-wire security plan whose aim is to perpetuate the current morass."

Partly because of the way the Saudi idea was unveiled, in comments to an American newspaper columnist, it seems to lack the heft and sincerity that a more formal proposal might have brought with it.

"It's considered a good idea," said a Western diplomat involved in peace efforts who also spoke on condition of anonymity, "but it's got to be allied with something solid ... it's sort of floating free."

From the Israeli standpoint, that solidity would probably have to come from US involvement. Although both the United Nations and the European Union are making attempts to mediate in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the Israelis have long accused those parties of pro-Palestinian bias and favored the US as a broker.

Saudi-US ties are key

Secretary Powell and his spokesman have supported the idea, but without indicating any commitment to it.

That may be because of another pressing US concern in the Middle East: whether Iraq should be the next locus of the "war on terrorism."

"The key is in Washington," Ben Caspit, a columnist for Israel's Ma'ariv daily, wrote yesterday.

"Will the US set aside the Iraqi issue for a while and try to upgrade the Saudi ideas, or will it continue allowing [Israelis and Palestinians] to bleed profusely? It is not clear."

Mr. Shoval, who once served as Israel's ambassador to Washington, says the Saudi crown prince made his offer mainly in order to improve US perceptions of Saudi Arabia, a country now known to many Americans as the home of 15 of the 19 Sept. 11 hijackers.

The Saudis have themselves criticized the US for failing to ameliorate the Israeli-Palestinian situation, and Abdullah may have wanted to show that Saudi Arabia is ready to play its part in a regional solution to the conflict.

"Our feeling is that the address is really America and not so much Israel," Shoval says.

Abdullah notably omitted any reference to UN Security Council Resolution 242, which calls for Israel's withdrawal from "territories occupied" in 1967.

The phrasing contains the wiggle room that has allowed Middle East peacemaking to come as far as it has: Palestinians insist that the resolution means pulling out of all occupied territories; the Israelis disagree.

Full peace, full withdrawal

The Saudi idea is less ambiguous and thus all the more unacceptable to Sharon and many other Israelis who believe that some of the territories are essential to their future security.

"Sharon cannot meet the conditions of this initiative," says Ghassan Khatib, a Palestinian political analyst, "because it is about full peace with the Arabs in exchange for full withdrawal."

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