- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 27, 2002

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon said yesterday he was prepared to hold direct talks with Saudi Arabia, giving fresh momentum to a Middle East peace plan recently floated by a top Saudi prince.

President Bush also welcomed the proposal in a phone call to Crown Prince Abdullah, the desert kingdom's de facto ruler and the principal architect of the deal.

The Saudi proposal, aimed at ending a cycle of Israeli-Palestinian violence that has raged for almost 18 months and claimed nearly 1,100 lives, calls for all Arab states to recognize Israel in return for Israeli withdrawal from lands it has held since the 1967 Middle East war.

Meanwhile, Israeli and Palestinian security chiefs met overnight to discuss ways of staunching 17 months of bloodshed, but new violence accompanied the diplomatic effort.

Israeli troops fatally shot a 25-year-old Palestinian man and wounded three others during an exchange of fire with gunmen at the Balata refugee camp near the West Bank city of Nablus, Palestinian medics and security sources said.

No details were immediately available from the U.S.-mediated meeting in Tel Aviv, which ended early today.

European Union foreign policy chief Javier Solana is expected to meet today in Jeddah with the Saudi leader.

Mr. Solana, who would be the first senior Western diplomat to visit the Saudi leader since the proposal was made public earlier this month, cut short a previously scheduled trip to Israel and the Palestinian territories to meet with the crown prince.

After meeting with Mr. Sharon in Jerusalem yesterday, Mr. Solana said the Israeli leader had told him he "would be ready to meet anybody from Saudi Arabia formally, informally, publicly, discreetly, whatever to get better information about this initiative."

Mr. Sharon's own spokesman, Raanan Gissin, was considerably more vague, saying Mr. Sharon "was always ready to meet with any Arab leader interested in advocating peace."

Israeli President Moshe Katsav offered Monday to go to Saudi Arabia or to host Prince Abdullah in Jerusalem to discuss the plan in person, but the Saudi government indicated that no direct talks could be held until a final settlement was reached.

White House spokesman Ari Fleischer told reporters yesterday that Mr. Bush called Prince Abdullah yesterday morning to express his appreciation. The phone call was the latest evidence of accelerating U.S. interest in the Saudi blueprint after recent strains in the bilateral relationship.

The president "praised the crown prince's ideas regarding the full Arab-Israeli normalization once a comprehensive peace agreement has been reached," Mr. Fleischer said.

The spokesman said the new peace plan "underscores Saudi Arabia's willingness to reach out to Israel, and that, the president finds, is encouraging."

But the White House and State Department yesterday also made clear that any long-term peace deal should not supplant U.S.-backed efforts to engineer an immediate cease-fire in the region between the Israelis and Palestinians.

The Saudi proposal, first floated by the crown prince in an interview with the New York Times earlier this month, is short on details and would require difficult compromises on both sides.

But the fact that the initiative comes from Saudi Arabia has taken many on both sides of the conflict off guard, said Mamoun H. Fandy, a Middle East scholar at the Near East-South Asia Center for Strategic Studies at the National Defense University.

As the spiritual home of Islam, "the Saudis can bring along the entire Muslim world, from Indonesia to Africa, if they decide to make a final peace with Israel," Mr. Fandy said.

That prospect is tantalizing to Israel, but full Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank, Gaza Strip and Golan Heights is bitterly opposed by many in Mr. Sharon's governing coalition.

But the Israeli government appears to have been caught off guard both by the Saudi idea and by the diplomatic tail wind it has enjoyed.

The grinding struggle with the Palestinians and the struggling economy have left Mr. Sharon vulnerable politically. Several leading Israeli newspapers yesterday urged Mr. Sharon to seize the opportunity offered by the crown prince's plan, which the prime minister's office dismissed last week as a "gimmick."

Aluf Benn, diplomatic correspondent for the Israeli daily Ha'aretz, said yesterday Mr. Katsav's offer to fly to Saudi Arabia or host the crown prince in Jerusalem was in part a stalling tactic designed to "toss the ball back into the Saudi court."

The Saudi proposal also poses political problems for Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, already under heavy pressure from the Bush administration to curtail violence in the region.

Mr. Arafat said in a press conference in Ramallah yesterday that he "appreciated and supported completely" the Saudi initiative.

But more radical Palestinian independence groups that Mr. Arafat was struggling to contain were divided.

Hassan Yusuf, the West Bank leader of the Hamas movement, said his group "will not obstruct" a deal that requires Israel to withdraw from occupied lands.

But he added that Hamas would fight "any political proposal that will not give Palestinians their legitimate rights to their soil," including Israel.

Mr. Fandy said Saudi Arabia had been "stunned" by the involvement of so many Saudi nationals in the September 11 attacks. He said the crown prince had acted because of fears that the Palestinian problem could destabilize the region but also because the government felt a new confidence that the domestic dissent exposed by the terrorist strike had been contained.

The Saudi government rejected Mr. Bush's concept of an "axis of evil," and opposed any military strike in Baghdad.

"The kingdom is against resolving disputes through wars," said Interior Minister Prince Naif. "We will not under any circumstance support any war against any Arab country."

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