Saudi Prince’s Peace Initiative Gets Interest in Mideast, Washington

A new Saudi peace initiative has created a stir in the Middle East and drawn Israeli interest.

The initiative, which Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah outlined in a recent interview with New York Times journalist Thomas Friedman, calls for Israel to withdraw to its pre-Six-Day War boundaries in exchange for full diplomatic relations, normalized trade and security guarantees from Arab countries.

In the interview, Abdullah claimed he had in his desk a draft of a speech issuing such a call. But, he added, he had decided not to make the proposal because of the policies of Ariel Sharon’s government in Israel.

Friedman noted that the explanation fit a pattern of Arab excuses for peace moves they said they had almost made, but ultimately didn’t.

Still, the “nonproposal” has generated interest in Israeli, Arab and American circles.

Egypt, Jordan and Lebanon already have responded positively to the initiative. A Saudi newspaper reported Monday that Syria was not opposed to it.

However, Yasser Arafat’s Fatah movement rejected the proposal, according to reports in the Arab media.

A Saudi adviser to the crown prince briefed Bush administration officials in Washington over the weekend, while reports said another Saudi representative had traveled to Beirut with a message for Lebanon’s president, Emile Lahoud.

In Israel, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon confirmed on Sunday that he had already taken “several steps” to learn more about the initiative, but did not elaborate.

On Monday, Israel Radio reported that Sharon was making inquiries through several channels, including the United States. The report said he was interested in learning the details through either open or secret contacts with the crown prince or a trustworthy representative.

A senior aide to Sharon said Monday that Israel could not agree to one of the proposal’s key provisions.

“Under the assumption that what has been published is correct, it must be said that we’re speaking of a positive trend,” Cabinet Secretary Gideon Saar told Army Radio. “This does not mean that we agree to the demand for a return to the 1967 borders. It’s clear that we won’t agree to this.”

Arafat’s Fatah also took issue with at least one portion of the Saudi proposal. According to reports, Fatah officials were displeased that the initiative did not call on Israel to recognize the right of Palestinian refugees to return to homes they abandoned during the 1948 War of Independence.

In another development, Israeli President Moshe Katsav invited the prince to come to Jerusalem to discuss the initiative. Katsav also said Monday that he would travel to Saudi Arabia if invited.

For his part, Foreign Minister Shimon Peres on Monday called the proposal “interesting” and “fascinating,” but stressed that Israel needs more details.

Meanwhile, Israel Radio reported that the United States has cautioned Israel against overestimating the importance of the proposal.

The report quoted a senior U.S. official as saying that the initiative does not directly address the immediate problem of ending the Israeli-Palestinian violence.

Some observers suggested Abdullah floated the initiative as a trial balloon to test Arab and international reaction before an April meeting of the Arab League.

Others suggested that the Saudis are concerned that the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict could destabilize the entire region.

Another possibility raised was that Saudi officials want to improve their image in Washington after the Sept. 11 terror attacks. Fifteen of the 19 terrorists who carried out the attacks were Saudi nationals.

According to the Israeli daily Ha’aretz, Israel’s Foreign Ministry has come up with several possible motives for the Saudi initiative — including the possibility that it was aimed at forging a unified Arab front on the diplomatic process, while casting Israel in the role of obstructor to the peace process.

Ha’aretz commentator Akiva Eldar suggested another motive: The initiative was not aimed at Sharon’s government but at the Israeli people and the opposition, he said, to bring about a change of government to one willing to accept the proposal.

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