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US Presses Ahead for Mideast Cease-Fire - 2002-03-28

The United States is welcoming the Arab League's endorsement of a Saudi proposal for Arab-Israeli peace. But, the Bush administration is stopping short of describing it as a new basis for negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians and is pressing ahead with efforts to work out a cease-fire.

The Bush administration is not expecting the Arab League endorsement of the Saudi initiative to lead to a quick end to 18 months of escalating Israeli-Palestinian violence.

State Department spokesman Richard Boucher was pressed by reporters Thursday to describe what effect Arab backing of the Saudi initiative on its own would have on stopping what have been increasingly deadly Palestinian attacks and Israeli retaliation.

"It does have a practical, we hope catalytic effect on moving down that path because knowing that that is where everybody agrees we should go, we would hope it would encourage the parties and have an effect of moving people more directly down that path," he said.

The Saudi plan put forward by Crown Prince Abdullah calls for the Arab world to normalize relations with Israel in exchange for an Israeli withdrawal from Arab land held since 1967.

"The fact that Crown Prince Abdullah has made this speech and received the endorsement of the Arab world, to us that is news and that's a good thing," Mr. Boucher said.

But the White House believes the plan can go nowhere as long as Israel and the Palestinians are unable to reach a cease-fire, and as long as Yasser Arafat stops short of a 100 percent effort toward combating terrorism.

President Bush told a crowd in his home state of Texas Thursday even though the picture looks bleak, the United States has no choice but to remain engaged.

"I know the Middle East, it looks like there never will peace," the president said. "But I can assure you we're not giving up. We're not going to let murderers disrupt the march to peace."

Late Thursday, Mr. Arafat said he had informed U.S. Middle East envoy Anthony Zinni that he is ready to work for an immediate cease-fire. U.S. officials said they planned take a closer look at the Palestinian leader's ideas before commenting. And Israeli officials were questioning whether this latest gesture by Mr. Arafat was intended only to prevent a full military assault on the Palestinian Authority - a day after one of the deadliest suicide bombings in Israel since the current conflict began.