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Analysts Note Benefits To Israel Of Saudi Peace Plan - 2002-03-06


The Saudi Middle East peace proposal has been gaining support even as the violence increases between Israelis and Palestinians. The plan would offer Israel normal relations with the Arab countries in exchange for its withdrawal from the occupied territores. VOA's Ed Warner sampled some views of this latest effort to bring peace to the Middle East.

Crown Prince Abdullah, the effective ruler of Saudi Arabia, chooses his words with care, says Eugene Bird, president of the Council for the National Interest in Washington.

That is why his new proposal for peace between Israelis and Palestinians has been taken seriously. "Abdullah reaches out to all kinds of opinion," said Mr. Bird. "He used to have a bad stutter. I understand he has overcome that now. He communicates extremely well with all kinds of people, from the very bottom up to the top and of different nationalities. Therefore, this is a very serious proposal."

It is just a beginning, say Saudis, a basic guide on which details can be built. In return for normal ties with the Arab nations, Israel must withdraw from the land it has occupied since the 1967 war, but the exact boundaries can be left to negotiations.

While the United States has pursued a much-criticized hands-off policy toward the conflict, President Bush sent CIA Director George Tenet to Riyadh to discuss the Saudi proposal. Israel's Sharon government has not shown much enthusiasm, while Yasser Arafat has expressed his support. The reaction of Arab nations is expected to emerge at their summit meeting at the end of March.

Henry Siegman, a senior fellow of the Council on Foreign Relations, anticipates widespread backing of the plan. "Saudi Arabia is the government that has the kind of weight and credibility in the Middle East that if it pursues a particular peace initiative rigorously, the entire Arab world will support it," he said. "I do not expect any of the countries to block such an initiative."

There would, of course, be varying levels of support, depending on each nation's relations with Israel. Mr. Bird thinks most would favor normal relations. "This would open up the Arab world to Israel, to recognition by not just the Saudis but by a good number of the others, perhaps not Libya, perhaps not Sudan, perhaps not Iran, although that is a possibility, too if a line of demarcation between a Palestinian state and Israel were to be drawn that would be acceptable to both sides," he said.

For Israel, it would be a dream come true, says Mr. Siegman. Israelis have worried that if they reach a settlement with the Palestinians, they will still face hostile Arab neighbors. The Saudis now say a settlement will assure peaceful neighbors.

"The Saudis have said to them: you can make the concessions that need to be made to achieve peace, and what you will find is that most of the Arab world will have Israeli embassies in their countries, will have trade relations with you and will take the necessary steps to deal with Israel's security concerns," said Mr. Siegman. "That is a major accomplishment that most Israeli leaders who first established the state thought might never be achieved."

Under such a plan, Israel's Haaretz newspaper envisions a future of economic and cultural cooperation: Israeli falafel in Damascus and stalls in the international markets in Dubai, an Israeli flag in Riyad, programming engineers in Bahrain and gas from Qatar.

It is tragic, says Mr. Siegman, that people will continue to die unnecessarily while such a credible plan is being pondered.

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