- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 25, 2004

JERUSALEM — Saudi Arabia has renewed an initiative calling for a comprehensive peace agreement between Israel and the Arab world, the Palestinian foreign minister said yesterday.

Nabil Shaath said the proposal would call for Israel to withdraw from the lands captured in the 1967 Middle East War and agree to the establishment of an independent Palestinian state with Jerusalem as its capital in return for peace with the Arab world.

Saudi officials refused to confirm the report. But one Saudi official said, “There’s a need to renew interest in the peace process.” Speaking on the condition of anonymity, he cited “Israel’s unilateral actions and the lack of the U.S. interest.”

Mr. Shaath, speaking from the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, said the Palestinians, Egypt and Jordan are helping draft the latest plan. They hope to present the proposal to the Arab League summit in Tunisia in March and eventually bring it to the U.N. Security Council, he said.

The initiative amounts to an extension of a Saudi plan that was endorsed by the Arab League in March 2002, which called on Israel to withdraw from occupied land in return for normal relations with the Arab world.

Days later, Israel launched a massive West Bank invasion in response to a wave of suicide bombings, and the plan never received a formal response. However, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon opposes a total pullout from the areas won in 1967.

Mr. Shaath said the new Saudi plan would initially call for a cease-fire between Israel and the Palestinians, and a halt to Israel’s construction of a separation barrier in the West Bank. Israel says it is meant to protect against suicide bombers. Palestinians say the barrier is a land grab.

Such steps, including stopping the violence from both sides, would lead to a political process “by which the Arabs will be ready for total reconciliation and readiness to recognize the state of Israel,” Mr. Shaath said.

The hope, apparently, is that an Arab call for a cease-fire would put pressure on militant groups to halt attacks on Israel, and that could in turn push Israel to fulfill its obligations under the so-called “road map” for Middle East peace.

The road map calls on the Palestinians to dismantle militant groups and the Israelis to freeze settlement activity in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

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