Abdullah's proposal picks up speed

01 March 2002

Crown Prince Abdullah is expected to seek formal endorsement for his Middle East peace proposal at the 27-28 March Arab League summit in Beirut. The crown prince said in a 17 February interview with the New York Times that he would support the full normalisation of all Arab relations with Israel in exchange for a return to pre-1967 borders. Both Israel and the US have welcomed the spirit of the proposal, but neither has said it is a blueprint for peace.

While there is nothing explicitly new in Crown Prince Abdullah's proposals, which do not deal with the return of Palestinian refugees, both the timing and the source of the offer have attracted international enthusiasm. 'The idea is welcome,' a UK Foreign & Commonwealth Office spokesman said on 28 February. 'The timing is good because the picture is bleak on the ground.' France and Russia have also welcomed the overture.

Javier Solana, the EU foreign and security policy chief, made an unscheduled visit to Jeddah on 27 February to discuss the proposals with the crown prince. 'He [Crown Prince Abdullah] is going to co-ordinate his ideas with the Arab countries. and he expects at the Arab League summit they will be approved,' Solana said after the meeting. Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat said he 'appreciated and supported completely' Saudi Arabia's efforts.

The US has warmly received Crown Prince Abdullah's suggestion, but insists that it represents a long-term ideal, rather than a quick route to peace. 'The president praised the crown prince's ideas regarding the full Arab-Israeli normalisation once a comprehensive peace agreement has been reached,' said White House spokesman Ari Fleischer. A senior State Department official was dispatched to Riyadh on 28 February to further discuss the meat of the plans.

The Israeli response to the offer has been mixed. Prime Minister Ariel Sharon called the proposal interesting, according to Solana, but would need to hear more details. Sharon spokesman Ranaan Gissin said on 26 February that Sharon 'was always ready to meet with any Arab leader interested in advancing peace'. Crown Prince Abdullah was reported on 28 February to have ruled out a meeting with Sharon before an Israeli withdrawal from Palestinian territories. But Sharon is seen as unlikely to acquiesce to any plan involving a complete pullout.

Crown Prince Abdullah's proposal has coincided with an increase in violence in the West Bank and Gaza. More than 40 Palestinians and 10 Israelis were killed in the last week of February. Israel elected to lighten its military blockade on Arafat, withdrawing its tanks from the perimeter of his compound. But it refused to allow him to leave Ramallah, where he has been imprisoned since 3 December.

On 27 February, Dareen Abu Aisha became the second Palestinian woman to launch a suicide bomb attack on Israeli targets. In response, Israel launched an assault on Jenin and Batala, leading to the deaths of at least eight Palestinians and an Israeli soldier. But amid the violence, talking persists. Israeli and Palestinian negotiators met on the morning of 28 February in another attempt to stem the flow of blood.

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