Abdullah garners Arab support for peace plan

08 March 2002

The peace plan prepared by Crown Prince Abdullah of Saudi Arabia is to be presented formally to Arab foreign affairs ministers on 9 March, as a preliminary step for it to be approved at the Arab summit conference in Beirut at the end of the month.

The Saudi crown prince has held extensive consultations with Arab and international leaders as the finishing touches are being put to the initiative. So far only the broad outlines have been announced, entailing the suggestion that Arab states would be prepared to normalise relations with Israel in return for a full withdrawal from the territories occupied in the June 1967 war and the creation of a Palestinian state. The plan is expected to evolve along similar lines to the Fahd initiative that was adopted by the Fez summit in 1981.

On 5 March Crown Prince Abdullah won the crucial backing of President Asad of Syria, who travelled to the kingdom after a groundbreaking visit to Beirut for talks with President Lahoud. Syria and Lebanon have been anxious to ensure that their interests are not sidelined in any fresh approach to settling the Palestine question. Syria has been concerned to emphasise the need to address the issue of the Golan Heights, and Lebanon has sought to emphasise the need to tackle the Palestinian refugee issue and to ensure that Israel completes its withdrawal from south Lebanon.

The official Syrian media referred to a convergence of views between Asad and Abdullah, and the Saudi Press Agency stated that Asad has expressed his support for the crown prince's 'visions for a comprehensive and just solution for the conflict in the region'.

The only discordant voices in the Arab world have come from Iraq and Libya, which have both attacked the Saudi plan. Of potentially greater significance has been the support afforded to the plan by Iran. Foreign Affairs Minister Kamal Kharrazi told his visiting Syrian counterpart, Farouq al-Shara, on 6 March that Iran sees the initiative as a positive first step towards liberating Palestinian territory.

US President Bush voiced support for the plan at a 5 March meeting in Washington with President Mubarak of Egypt. 'I think the crown prince's suggestion was a very positive development,' Bush said. However, Washington is still taking a cautious approach. Bush said he was ready to send special envoy Anthony Zinni back to the region, but only 'when appropriate'. US State Department spokesman Richard Boucher was more blunt: 'We don't send envoys just to have somebody out there.'

Mubarak is trying to secure a role in the new diplomatic moves with a proposal to host direct talks in Egypt between Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. However, Sharon is continuing to insist that Arafat must not leave Ramallah.

Saudi officials have indicated that Arafat's presence at the Beirut summit will be an essential condition for the progress of the new peace initiative.

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