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US Welcomes Saudi Proposal for Normalization with Israel - 2002-02-20

The United States has welcomed a reported Saudi overture calling for Arab recognition of Israel, if it withdrew from all Arab territories occupied in the 1967 Middle East war. But it says a Palestinian Authority crackdown against anti-Israel terrorist factions remains a "crucial first step" toward a renewed peace process.

The Bush administration is making clear it welcomes the Saudi initiative even though its author, Crown Prince Abdullah, says he is withholding its presentation because of hard-line policies by Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.

In an interview last week with The New York Times, the crown prince, who is the country's de facto ruler, said he had drafted a speech proposing full normalization of ties with Israel by the Arab countries in exchange for full Israeli withdrawal from occupied territory in accordance with U.N. resolutions.

The Times reported Sunday that Crown Prince Abdullah had planned to make the speech at an Arab summit in Beirut next month, but then decided to shelve the idea because of tough Israeli military moves against the Palestinians.

Briefing reporters here, State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said the Bush administration is "well aware" of the tentative overture and welcomes the Saudi involvement. "Certainly, if Saudi Arabia is willing to reach out to Israel to talk about peace and normalization of relations, then that is a significant and positive step," he went on to say. "The reports highlight the importance of not giving up on Arab-Israeli peace and the critical need to do everything we can to help end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict."

Mr. Boucher said the United States will continue to talk to the Saudis and others about how to help the parties end the violence and resume the political process, which he said is the only way to realize the vision embraced by the Bush administration of two states, Israel and Palestine, living side-by-side in peace and security.

But he said the "crucial first step" is for Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and the Palestinian Authority to make every effort to arrest terrorists and dismantle terrorist organizations carrying out attacks against Israel.

Even though it has not, and may not, be formally presented, the Saudi ideas are attracting widespread comment in the region.

Both Mr. Arafat and Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres said the overture is important though other Israeli officials called it vague and said it could mask unacceptable conditions on Jerusalem and the right of return of Palestinian refugees.

Officials here say the United States continues to support the proposals of the Mitchell Commission and the cease-fire plan of CIA director George Tenet as the roadmap toward a renewed peace process.