- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 2, 2002

U.S. officials have received their first direct briefing on a new Saudi peace proposal that has re-energized efforts to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Assistant Secretary of State for Near East Affairs William J. Burns and CIA Director George J. Tenet met with Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah in Jeddah, the Saudi Arabian port city, late Thursday to discuss the prince's comprehensive land-for-peace plan, first floated two weeks ago.
The State Department acknowledged the meeting yesterday but provided few details of the talks. The official Saudi news agency made no mention of the discussions.
"They had a good discussion of the [Saudi] ideas and the situation and how we go forward," spokesman Richard Boucher said yesterday.
The meeting came amid worsening violence on the ground yesterday.
Israeli army units pushed into a second West Bank refugee camp in what Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's government has described as an effort to flush out militants hiding in the camps.
Palestinian sources told the Associated Press that at least six Palestinians had been killed and 38 wounded in the assault on the Jenin refugee camp in the northern West Bank. A 9-year-old girl was among those killed, according to the sources. She had been hit by fire from an Israeli helicopter, they said.
The Israeli army said one soldier was killed and another seriously wounded in gunbattles in the camp, which is considered a stronghold of Palestinian militant groups.
The Palestinian Authority responded by suspending all talks with Israeli officials, including U.S.-brokered security meetings aimed at paving the way for a cease-fire.
"There will be no security meetings and no political meetings as long as Israeli raids on the camps, destruction and killing continue," Ahmed Abdel-Rahman, a senior aide to Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, told the Qatar-based Al Jazeera television network.
The Saudi prince's peace deal, of which he has furnished few details, calls for Arab states to normalize relations with Israel in exchange for an Israeli withdrawal from all land seized in the 1967 war.
The plan requires difficult concessions on both sides but has been cautiously welcomed by both Israel and Arab governments because of its ambitious scope and the Saudi leadership's prestige in the Muslim world.
Arab League Secretary-General Amr Moussa has announced plans for a tour of regional capitals to discuss the plan. Aides to Mr. Moussa say the Saudi idea will head the agenda at a summit of the 22-nation organization in Beirut on March 27 and 28.
At least 19 Palestinian police, gunmen and civilians and two Israeli soldiers have been killed since the latest incursions began Thursday with a thrust into the Balata refugee camp near the city of Nablus.
U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Mary Robinson denounced the Israeli moves during a visit to Cairo yesterday, saying they showed a "total disregard of international human rights and humanitarian law."
She called for an immediate withdrawal of Israeli forces from the camps.
Mr. Boucher said the Bush administration was "concerned" about the Israeli incursions.
"We are in touch with the Israeli government to urge that the utmost restraint be exercised in order to avoid harm to the civilian population," he said.
But as in past U.S. statements, Mr. Boucher said the onus was on Mr. Arafat to restrain Palestinian militants and suicide bombers planning to attack Israeli targets.
Taken literally, the Saudi proposal would require Israeli forces to withdraw from the Golan Heights and East Jerusalem, a move adamantly opposed by key elements in Mr. Sharon's governing coalition.
Mr. Sharon's room to maneuver may be shrinking, as a new poll released yesterday put his popularity at its lowest point since his landslide election in February 2001.
The poll, published in the Jerusalem daily Ma'arev, found that 53 percent of those surveyed were dissatisfied with Mr. Sharon's performance, compared with 42 percent who said they were satisfied, the first time the conservative leader received a majority-negative rating.
Commentator Chemi Shalev said the continuing violence, despite Mr. Sharon's get-tough tactics, has left the prime minister vulnerable on both ends of the political spectrum.
"The right wing thinks he has been too soft on the Palestinians, and the left wing is convinced he has been too tough," Mr. Shalev wrote.
There has also been some question of the seriousness of the Saudi offer. The prince, who recently condemned President Bush's "axis of evil" speech, has said almost nothing publicly since first revealing the plan in a New York Times interview.
And Saudi U.N. Ambassador Fawzi Shubukshi disappointed diplomats this week at a two-day Security Council meeting on the Middle East by barely mentioning his government's proposal while fiercely condemning Israel.
The ambassador accused Israel of wanting to expel all Arabs from Palestinian territory, saying the Jewish state was guilty of "one of the worst examples of pressure and persecution and racism and systematic oppression in the history of mankind."
The growing interest in the Saudi plan also has presented a problem for the Bush administration, which has focused on more short-term efforts to stop 18 months of violence in the Middle East that have left at least 908 Palestinians and 280 Israelis dead. The U.S. government also has worked to ensure Saudi cooperation in the post-September 11 global war on terrorism.
National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice said in an interview on Egyptian television yesterday that it will be up to the Israelis and the Palestinians to negotiate a final border settlement, adding that the first priority remains ending the violence.
"I don't think we can decide in advance the final form" of an Israeli-Palestinian accord, Miss Rice said.
*Betsy Pisik contributed to this report from New York.

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