- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 26, 2002

TEL AVIV Israeli leaders yesterday expressed welcome ranging from lukewarm to enthusiastic for a Saudi peace initiative that would normalize relations between Israel and the Arabs in exchange for a withdrawal to pre-1967 lines.

Israeli President Moshe Katsav publicly invited Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah to Israel to explain his ideas.

Foreign Minister Shimon Peres said the initiative was "a great thing," and hawkish Finance Minister Silvan Shalom said the initiative "ought to be examined."

Prince Abdullah outlined his idea in a recent interview with a columnist for the New York Times.

In Washington, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell said yesterday he discussed the idea with Crown Prince Abdullah in a phone call Sunday.

"I think it's an important step that we have welcomed, and I wanted to share that with the crown prince, our reaction to his idea, and hope that in the weeks ahead it will be fleshed out in greater detail," he said after meeting with Spanish Foreign Minister Joseph Pique.

Mr. Powell however would not comment on the details of the plan, which calls for Israel to retreat from the territory it won in the 1967 and 1973 wars with Arab states.

The initiative seems to have gained momentum nevertheless, with several Arab countries reportedly supporting it. Israeli leaders have also begun to react favorably to the initiative.

Mr. Katsav yesterday interrupted a day of condolence visits to the families of soldiers and a policeman killed in clashes with Palestinians to say he hoped Prince Abdullah would come to Jerusalem to explain his initiative or receive an Israeli emissary in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.

"If I were invited to Riyadh, I would be happy to go there," he said.

Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's foreign policy adviser Danny Ayalon said the government was trying to get more information through discreet diplomatic channels.

The official said there were "positive signs" in Saudi Arabia's talk of peace and normalization. "When there is talk, we listen," he said.

Mr. Peres said Saudi Arabia seemed to be coming around.

"There was a time it turned its back on Israel. It didn't want to hear us, to normalize relations with us. [Now] it is suggesting to the Arab world to normalize relations with us, to recognize Israel under certain conditions," Mr. Peres said.

Mr. Shalom, a hard-liner who has been campaigning to force Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat out of the area, said the Saudis' readiness to recognize Israel is not something that should cause one's heart to overflow with joy.

"After 54 years of independence, we need a bit more than that," he said.

Nevertheless, if there is readiness to reach an overall peace agreement with the Arab world, "this is something that has to be checked," Mr. Shalom said.

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