US Lauds But Will Not
Endorse Saudi Peace Plan

By Richard Tomkins and
Eli J. Lake

WASHINGTON(UPI) - The United States said Tuesday that a Saudi Arabian proposal to recognize the state of Israel once a comprehensive Middle East peace accord is reached is a "note of hope," but stopped short of formally endorsing it.
White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said President Bush praised Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah for his idea Tuesday morning in a telephone call with the de-facto leader of the Arab state.
But the United States still sees the stalled peace plan drawn up by former U.S. Senator George Mitchell in April last year as the best roadmap for reaching an accord, he added.
"The president welcomes all attempts to obtain a comprehensive peace," Fleischer added. "It's important to see what peace would be like at the end of the day ... (but) the end of the day is very long in the Middle East.
"You know, there's just been so many negative notes coming out of the Middle East recently and, at least in this statement by the crown prince, it was a note of hope," Fleischer said.
In a recent interview with the New York Times, Abdullah said his country would seek to normalize relations with Israel if Jerusalem withdrew from territory it occupied during the 1967 Arab-Israeli war.
Before the conflict, all the Gaza Strip was under Egyptian rule, the West Bank was part of Jordan, the Golan Heights were Syrian territory, and all of East Jerusalem - including the Old City with its sites sacred to Christians, Muslims and Jews -- was also Jordanian. Since 1967, Egypt and Jordan have ceded their territorial claims in favor of the Palestinians.
In his statements Tuesday, Fleischer only referred to a comprehensive peace -- he did not mention the pre-1967 borders.
A senior State Department official Tuesday told reporters that through official U.S. contacts with Riyadh, the State Department has interpreted the Saudi proposal to mean that normalization would come after a negotiated settlement.
The prospect of a comprehensive accord, however, seems as far away as ever. Months of violence between Israelis and Palestinians have repeatedly pushed out of reach the Mitchell plan's first condition for serious negotiations between the two sides -- a specific period of non-violence, followed by confidence-building measures.
The so-called Mitchell plan was drawn up by an international commission mandated by the Sharm el-Sheikh summit in October 2000, and headed by the former U.S. senator. In June last year, CIA Director George Tenet received written understandings from both sides in the conflict agreeing to terms for a cease fire, but since his visit the violence has actually escalated.
Fleischer stopped short of saying the president endorsed Abdullah's statement, and while saying it was positive added "it doesn't in and of itself change anything on the ground in the Middle East."
A State Department official on Tuesday added to this sentiment saying, "All of this is dependent on a final status negotiation between the Israelis and Palestinians. The Saudis are not offering a separate peace deal; they are not offering a Saudi track. This is a Saudi vision for the region."
"All we've asked is let's see if we can't work together to turn this into something," this source told United Press International on Tuesday.
To that end, U.S. officials are pushing the House of Saud to encourage other Arab states to reiterate the longstanding understanding that a negotiated end to the Palestinian conflict would bring with it full recognition of the state of Israel.
The cautionary noted sounded at Foggy Bottom found an echo at the White House.
"Nothing has changed the president's fundamental belief that the Mitchell accords are the best path, the best process to achieve a comprehensive peace agreement that is agreed to by the two parties in the Middle East. And the president continues to believe that Chairman (Yasser) Arafat has to do more to stop the violence," Fleischer said Tuesday. "That is the president's view."
Next month, the Arab League is scheduled to meet in Beirut. Abdullah told the New York Times this month that he had initially hoped to present his proposal at that meeting, but scrapped the plan in light of the escalating violence.
As Arab capitals prepare for the summit, the European Union formally asked the Israelis to lift the travel ban on Palestinian Leader Yasser Arafat so he may attend as well. Some U.S. officials are hoping the prospect for a tempered and constructive role from Saudi Arabia may provide Ariel Sharon's government with enough incentive to let him attend.
Also Tuesday, the European Union's High Representative for Common Foreign and Security Policy, Javier Solana -- a member of the original Mitchell Commission -- cut short a visit to Israel and the Palestinian Authority in order to go to the Saudi capital of Riyadh.
Solana discussed the Saudi proposal with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon in Jerusalem, Tuesday, and said later Sharon has, "expressed a great interest in having more information about the content of the suggestion that has been presented by the Crown Prince Abdullah."
Defense Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer told Solana the initiative "contains innovative elements and should therefore be promoted, not rejected," the minister's media advisor told UPI.
Earlier, Foreign Minister Shimon Peres warmly welcomed the idea and in visits to Madrid, last week, and Paris on Tuesday was reported trying to get the Europeans to push for it. President Moshe Katsav invited Abdullah to Israel to explain the initiative adding that if invited to Riyadh to discuss it, he would gladly go.
Fleischer said Bush and Abdullah did not discuss the war on terrorism in the call initiated by the president, but did reaffirm Saudi-U.S. ties and cooperation.
Saudi Arabia is a key U.S. ally in the Middle East, but tensions have arisen over its reluctance to allow U.S. forces based in Saudi Arabia to use its territory in Operation Enduring Freedom, the U.S. campaign against terrorism and Afghanistan's extremist Taliban.
Copyright © 2002 United Press International. All rights reserved.

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