Arab peace plan faces first round

Saudi Arabia's land-for-peace proposal will be put to a vote tomorrow as Arab leaders convene in Beirut.

The last time the Arab world embarked on a collective effort to aid the Palestinians, it resulted in fresh hostilities: Egypt and Syria waged war against Israel in 1973.

But Arab leaders will again consider collective action on behalf of the Palestinians at a summit this week in Beirut, Lebanon. This time, the Arabs are putting forward a vision of harmony in the Middle East.

Inspired by an initiative from Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Abdullah, the 22 members of the Arab League are expected to offer Israel comprehensive peace in exchange for complete withdrawal from lands Israel seized in the 1967 Arab-Israeli War. The Arab leaders will call for a Palestinian state – with its capital in East Jerusalem – in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

But the deal is far from done. For one thing, Israeli restrictions may prevent Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat from attending the summit.

For another, the wording of the offer demands delicacy. The Arab leaders are trying to circumvent Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's government and directly address the Israeli public and world opinion in an effort to dangle the carrot of peace in a time of war.

"The initiative received wide support because it is based on UN resolutions, called for by the Arabs, and because what the Israeli prime minister, Sharon, is doing has brought the region to an impasse and this proposal is a way out of the impasse," says Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, the summit's host.

Appeal to Israeli public

The idea is to appeal, first of all, to Israelis, in the hope that they will dump Sharon in favor of a more dovish leader who is more inclined to make peace on terms that appeal to the Arabs.

"This time it is the Arabs addressing the world," says Nadim Shehadi, director of the Center for Lebanese Studies at Oxford University. "If they play it well, it will be quite positive."

"It's a message to the Israeli people: 'Find someone else,' " says Taher Masri, a former Jordanian prime minister. No one seems to be under the impression that the current Israeli government will find much to like in the Saudi plan.

Another goal is to force the US to pressure Israel to accede to the sort of land-for-peace deal the Arabs envisage. "There is a feeling they are calling America's bluff," says Gerald Butt, an editor of the Middle East Economic Survey. "They're saying, 'OK, we'll give you peace if you get Israel out of occupied land.' It's such a major prospect for Israel ... having peace with all the Arab world. It's raised the stakes."

'Crucial' moment

A US State Department official, speaking on condition of anonymity, says the Saudi plan has provided a vision of peace at a crucial moment. "The intangible quality is its ability to raise both sides out of their current mindset and suggest to them that there is a better situation possible than what either side can reach through violence or unilateral action," he says.

But Mr. Masri asserts that the US has not provided sufficient support or enthusiasm for the initiative so far, perhaps because the US is not in favor of a full Israeli withdrawal to the 1967 borders, although he says he hopes the American position will shift if the Arab League adopts the Saudi plan.

The summit declaration "has to be very diluted, very symbolic, leaving all options open – yet very positive," says Mr. Shehadi.

There's another potential deal breaker as well. The initiative may sink under the weight of an Arab demand, for example, that Palestinian refugees who hail from areas inside Israel be allowed to return to their homes of decades past.

But even the serious consideration being accorded the initiative demonstrates anew how the Arab approach to Israel has evolved from militancy to peacemaking. After Israel's stunning victory in the 1967 war, the Arabs resolved to increase their military strength, a strategy that resulted in the 1973 conflict.

Despite initial Arab successes on the battlefield, the Israelis prevailed, in part because of a massive infusion of US military aid. The war then paved the way for Egypt's 1979 treaty with Israel, a separate peace that wrecked any further hope of unified Arab belligerency against the Jewish state.

An earlier attempt at peace

In 1981, acting on an earlier Saudi initiative, Arab leaders met to discuss a comprehensive peace deal with Israel, but the meeting splintered into discord after a few hours. They reconvened several months later to adopt a modified plan that faded into insignificance.

Following Mr. Arafat's 1988 renunciation of armed struggle, Arab states increasingly adopted peace with Israel – rather than its eradication – as their strate- gic goal. But not until the Prince Abdullah initiative this year have they seriously contemplated a collective offer of peace for land. Indeed, says former US ambassador to Saudi Arabia James Akins, President Bush's recent invitation to Abdullah to visit the presidential ranch in Texas is partly "a signal to the Israelis" that the US sees some hope in the Saudi plan.

Arab summits have typically afforded leaders a forum to rail against Israel without taking concrete action that might sap the long, slow momentum toward reconciliation. Arab leaders have relied on rhetoric to appease public sentiment at home, which has generally been harshly critical of Israel.

Cease-fire, first

The US is still determined that peace must begin with a cease-fire, and US envoy Anthony Zinni has mediated for more than a week in an effort to get the two sides to refrain from violence. "In that sense," says the US official, "we're still ... at apples and oranges – the apples being the two sides at each other's throats, and the oranges being a peace proposal that talks about final outcome."

Despite widespread frustration among Arabs over the US government's approach to the current phase of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict – short periods of mediation mixed with long stretches of support for heavy-handed Israeli military action – the Saudi initiative is coming into focus in part because of US diplomatic activity. United Nations Security Council Resolution 1397, sponsored by the US and passed this month, refers for the first time to the "state of Palestine," a phrase that President Bush and other US officials have also uttered in recent months.

"Now the Arabs, and the Palestinians too, think there is a light at the end of the tunnel," says Masri, the former Jordanian prime minister. "In return for this, the Arabs are ready to collectively say something constructive."

• Nick Blanford in Beirut, Lebanon, Howard LaFranchi in Washington, and Mike Theodoulou in Nicosia, Cyprus, contributed to this report.

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