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UN Chief Praises Saudi Peace Proposal, Calls Palestinian Coalition 'Disappointing'

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has praised a five-year old Saudi Arabian peace proposal as a "pillar" in the search for Middle East peace. The Saudi plan is to be discussed later this month at an Arab summit in Riyadh. Mr. Ban spoke about the plan in a one-on-one VOA interview as he prepares for his first trip to the Middle East as U.N. chief. VOA Correspondent Peter Heinlein talked to Mr. Ban, and filed this report.

Mr. Ban told VOA he is generally encouraged by recent Middle East developments. He pointed in particular to the Mecca agreement that led to formation of a Palestinian national unity government.

At the same time, the secretary-general said he was disappointed at news that the Palestinian coalition has not endorsed the three basic peace principles set down by the Middle East Quartet.

Among the key stops on his 10-day visit will be in Riyadh, where a 2002 Saudi Arabian peace proposal will be reconsidered. It offers Israel full recognition by Arab States and permanent peace in return for a withdrawal to pre-1967 borderlines, the establishment of an independent Palestine with East Jerusalem as its capital, and a return of Palestinian refugees to lands lost in the 1967 war.

The plan was widely criticized at the time,not least because Israel has several objections to it. But both Israeli and American officials have recently noted that it contains positive elements. Secretary-General Ban says the Saudi plan has the potential to move forward the long-stalled peace process.

"I think the Arab peace initiative of 2002 by Saudi Arabia is one of the pillars, which will facilitate the peace process in the Middle East," said Ban Ki-moon. "It is encouraging that Americans and Israelis are now trying to revisit this Arab peace process. I know that there are still reservations shared by Israelis. But one cannot always be fully satisfied with one or two agreements. We must build upon these good principles."

As U.N. secretary-general, Mr. Ban leads one of the members of the Quartet, which also includes the United States, Russia and the European Union. His visit to the region coincides with a similar trip by U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, and Mr. Ban says he hopes to meet her when they are both in Israel. Their agenda is expected to include the Arab peace proposal.

Mr. Ban said, however, that his hopes for the Saudi proposal were dampened somewhat by the new Palestinian unity government's refusal to accept international principles laid down by the Quartet, including recognition of Israel's right to exist.

"Initial reports coming from this national unity government seem to be a little bit disappointing," said U.N. secretary-general. "They have not clearly stated they will abide by these three principles. I urge that the national unity government will surely adhere to and respect principles laid out by the Quartet. It is important that parties concerned should respect the right to exist, particularly Israel's, and engage in dialogue without resorting to violence."

In addition to his stop in Saudi Arabia, the secretary-general's 10-day Middle East trip will take him to Jordan, Egypt, Israel, Lebanon and the Palestinian territories. Notably, he will not visit two other regional players, Syria or Iran.

The U.N. chief also says he hopes to convene a meeting of the full Middle East Quartet sometime in April.