Bush-Saudi talks reassure Arab nations of US resolve

Eight-point peace proposal from Crown Prince comes with a warning about US favoritism toward Israel.

The visit by Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah to President Bush's Texas ranch this past weekend places the ball of Middle East peace back where Mr. Bush has never wanted it – in the US court.

The broad lines of a Mideast peace are now clear – two states, Israel and Palestine, existing side by side – with the key regional and international players on board. But the way the Bush administration responds to some new Saudi ideas it was clearly mulling over following Abdullah's visit will indicate how far the US is willing to advocate specifics.

It will also demonstrate how dedicated the administration is to sticking with the game to win the elusive peace accord.

Following the crown prince's visit, officials from moderate Arab countries say they are reassured that the US under Bush – reluctantly or not – is in the peace game for good. An Arab diplomat close to the talks says they're encouraged, too, that American leadership is behind the calling of a reported meeting of officials from the US, the European Union, Russia, and the United Nations for Madrid on May 2. The conference will set out where the peace process goes next, he said.

Crown Prince Abdullah, the Saudi kingdom's de facto leader, came to the US last week with what might be called an Arab version of the carrot and the stick. The stick was an admonition that the American tilt in favor of Israel and Prime Minister Ariel Sharon is perceived in the Arab world to be so strong that both US relations with the region and the region's stability are threatened.

The carrot is an eight-point peace proposal that fleshes out and updates an earlier peace plan that Abdullah unveiled in March and was later adopted by the Arab League at its March summit. Prior to Abdullah's visit, the latest proposal was reviewed with key Arab leaders who have felt that the March Saudi peace proposal – which offered normal relations between Israel and its Arab neighbors in exchange for a retreat to pre-1967 borders and creation of a Palestinian state – never received the international recognition it deserved. From the Arab point of view, Abdullah's proposal applies established principles for reaching peace to the current circumstances.

"These are a renewal of old terms of reference" including United Nations resolutions and international accords, says the Arab diplomat, who did not wish to be named.

The eight points include a complete Israeli withdrawal from Palestinian-controlled areas, and an end to Israeli settlements. It also proposed American-led peace talks accompanied by American coordinated peace keepers, and humanitarian aid to Palestinians hit hard by the Israeli military incursion.

The aim of the latter point is to demonstrate to Arab populations that the US is concerned about the welfare of the Palestinian population, Saudi officials say. It also reflects how the plight of Palestinians has come to dominate Abdullah's actions, sources who know him add.

"His unhappiness with Israeli treatment of the Palestinians, and now his real anguish over the humanitarian crisis they face, is very clear every time I speak with him," says Richard Murphy, a former US ambassador to Saudi Arabia now at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York.

But the over-all intent of Abdullah's visit and his proposal is to move the US back to the more "even-handed policy" from which Arabs believe the US strayed over the past month.

The impact of Abdullah's words – his carrot and stick – following a longer-than-programmed conversation with Bush was not completely clear by early Sunday. But since the crown prince remained in Texas to allow for further meetings among officials, the Saudis appeared to consider the visit at least a partial success.

"It's clear from the Saudi point of view that [Abdullah] didn't hit a home run, but he didn't strike out, either," says Michael Hudson, director of the Center for Contemporary Arab Studies at Georgetown University.

There were some initial signs that the crown prince and his message connected. On Friday, President Bush returned to the urgent language he used earlier in the month toward Israel, this time saying of the continued Israeli military presence in Palestinian-controlled lands: "It's time to end this."

But official US response to the fresh Saudi peace proposal was less clear. White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said on Friday that "there's a lot of overlap" between what the US and the Saudis are proposing for the Mideast. He also suggested the meeting in Texas strengthened "trust" and therefore "helps reduce the time" before further steps can be taken towards peace.

But Bush did not include the Saudi proposals in his post-visit remarks to the press – in part because the administration is still considering them, but also because it does not want to appear to be reacting under pressure from the Saudi "stick."

But on Friday the president did work to head off a planned vote in Congress this week on a resolution of support for Israel.

Bush said he understood the desire to show strong support for Israel, but he said US interests go "beyond" Israel to "good relationships with the Saudis and Jordanians and the Egyptians."

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