- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 28, 2002

BEIRUT Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah yesterday sought to bypass Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon by appealing directly to the Israeli people to seek a just and lasting peace with their Arab neighbors.

In his speech to the annual Arab League summit, the crown prince said that peace and the occupation of Arab lands "are incompatible and impossible to reconcile."

"I would further say to the Israeli people that if their government abandons the policy of force and oppression and embraces true peace, we will not hesitate to accept the right of the Israeli people to live in security with the people of the region."

Crown Prince Abdullah, in formally putting his land-for-peace proposal before the Arab League, edited out some of the more emotional terminology.

He offered "normal relations" to Israel, rather than the "full normalization" term that would presumably mean diplomatic, economic and cultural exchanges.

In Washington, Israeli Embassy spokesman Mark Regev said the original tone of reconciliation in the Saudi plan had been watered down.

"What was presented in Beirut had an erosion of original content," said Mr. Regev. "It has become hard-line."

Still, Prince Abdullah's words were easily the most gracious uttered in public yesterday.

The speech came hours before a suicide bomber killed 19 persons at an Israeli hotel at the start of the Passover celebration.

The two-day Arab summit got off to a chaotic start, overshadowed by the absence of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and the surprising no-shows of King Abdullah II of Jordan and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.

Mr. Arafat, who refused to leave Ramallah after Israel threatened to prevent him from coming back, was to have addressed the conference live via satellite.

But yesterday Mr. Arafat apparently refused to wait for his allotted late-morning slot, and instead gave his speech to the Arabic language news network Al Jazeera.

Then, Lebanese President Emile Lahoud refused to broadcast the speech live, claiming the Israelis might tamper with the transmission.

Instead, he offered to play a tape of the speech on the big screen in the ballroom of the Phoenecia Hotel, where Arab leaders are meeting.

That decision angered the Palestinian delegation, who stormed out of the conference in protest, demanding their leader be heard live.

As of last night, there were ongoing efforts to patch up the dispute. Lebanese Prime Minister Rafic Hariri said Mr. Arafat would speak today.

But there were conflicting reports over whether the Palestinian delegation would remain in the Lebanese capital.

The dispute over Mr. Arafat's speech reinforced the deep suspicions many Palestinians have about Arab intentions toward them, despite repeated declarations of solidarity.

Mr. Arafat has tense relations with several Arab states, particularly Syria, which has shunned him for agreeing to negotiate with Israel.

As recently as a week ago, Arab leaders indicated that the summit might extend a proposal that would lay out a detailed blueprint for peace.

But in their remarks yesterday, the leaders of key Arab nations appeared to take a hard line, supporting the Palestinian uprising as a legitimate response to Israel's occupation and demanding land before delivering peace.

Syria, Lebanon and Jordan yesterday reaffirmed the right of 3.6 million Palestinian refugees to return to their homeland, rejecting Israel's offer of "just compensation" and resettlement in other lands.

Syrian President Bashar Assad staked out the toughest definition of the land that could be returned to the Arabs, demanding water rights, full security control and the dismantling of Israel's weapons of mass destruction before a return is accepted.

"There is one land, not one-half land or three-quarters land," he said in a speech that was wide ranging and largely ad-libbed.

Even Lebanese Culture Minister Ghassem Salameh conceded that the final statement, which may be issued as soon as today, might not be as useful as once hoped.

"I'm not sure it's going to be as forceful as it should be," he told reporters, adding that it would "not be as strong as some delegations wanted."

Meanwhile, Iraq made a peace offering to Kuwait at the summit yesterday, but skeptical Kuwait dismissed it as "sweet talk."

Iraqi Foreign Minister Naji Sabri told reporters that Baghdad was offering to respect "the sovereignty of Kuwait and its national security." Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1990, igniting the 1991 Persian Gulf war that ousted Iraqi troops from the emirate.

"We are for advancement and moving forward and forging normal ties between two brotherly neighbors," Mr. Sabri said.

Steve Park in Washington contributed to this article, which is based in part on wire service reports.

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