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Saudi, in Emotional Plea to Israel, Offers 'Land for Peace' Proposal
NEIL MacFARQUHAR . NY Times . 27 march 2002

Crown Prince Abdullah of Saudi Arabia today gave an emotional speech to the Arab League summit meeting.

BEIRUT, Lebanon, March 27 — In an emotional and obviously heartfelt speech, Crown Prince Abdullah of Saudi Arabia today proposed normal relations and security for Israel in exchange for the return of the Israelis to their 1967 borders, recognition of a Palestinian state and the right of refugees to return.

"Allow me at this point to direct myself to the Israeli people," Prince Abdullah declared, "to say to them that the use of violence, for more than 50 years, has only resulted in more violence and destruction, and that the Israeli people are as far as they have been from security and peace, notwithstanding military superiority and despite efforts to subdue and suppress."

"Israel, and the world, must understand that peace, and the retention of the occupied Arab territories, are incapable and impossible to reconcile and achieve."

He added: "I would further say to the Israeli people that if their government abandons the policy of force and aggression and embraces true peace, we will not hesitate to accept the right of the Israeli people to live in security with the people of the region."

He went on to propose to the Arab League summit meeting here that the league "present a collective program" to the United Nations Security Council "based on normal relationships and security to Israel and parallel with an independent Palestinian country with its capital Jerusalem and the right of Palestinian people to come back to their country."

The Palestinian leader, Yasir Arafat, welcomed the Saudi proposal, even as the Palestinian delegation to the meeting walked out in protest at what a Palestinian official called the blocking by Lebanon of a planned speech to the meeting by Mr. Arafat over satellite television.

Speaking from his headquarters in the West Bank town of Ramallah, where he has been confined by the Israelis, Mr. Arafat said on the Arab station Al Jazeera: "At this summit, this initiative, God willing, will turn into an Arab initiative for the peace of the brave between us and the Israeli people and Jews in the world." .

After Prince Abdullah spoke, Syria, which has been the most hard-line of the Arab states, said it supported the Saudi initiative with some reservations. President Bashar al-Assad of Syria said that while his country backed the idea of pursuing peace with Israel it also said ties with the Israelis should be cut "while Palestinians are being killed."

Mr. Arafat announced on Tuesday that he was staying away from the Arab League meeting here after Israel determined he had not met its conditions for allowing him to travel. President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt also decided not to attend, in what was seen largely as a protest directed at Washington for failing to bolster Arab peace efforts by exerting greater pressure on Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.

Arab officials were quick to question the Bush administration's ability to restore calm in the Middle East if it could not even get the Sharon government to allow Mr. Arafat to attend a meeting.

Prince Saud al-Faisal, the Saudi foreign minister, suggested that the Israelis were fooling themselves if they thought that keeping Mr. Arafat in detention would promote peace and stability. He said it was Mr. Arafat who "will have to deal finally with the Palestinian question."

While noting American efforts to lobby Israel to allow Mr. Arafat to attend, Prince Saud said, "Could they have exerted more pressure? Certainly they could."

Other officials said the United States' failure to ensure Mr. Arafat's attendance was the reason that Mr. Mubarak had canceled, although the reason stated publicly by Egypt's foreign minister, Ahmed Maher, was unspecified domestic concerns. Mr. Mubarak's action seemed to come as a surprise — just an hour earlier, the foreign minister had described him as "very eager to come."

"Egypt is deeply concerned and disappointed because of the failure of all efforts to end the captivity of Arafat in Ramallah," another Egyptian official said.

Mr. Maher tried to dismiss the widespread perception that Mr. Mubarak might not want to attend because Saudi Arabia, with its initiative, had suddenly eclipsed Egypt's role as Middle East peacemaker.

"We strongly support the initiative by Prince Abdullah," Mr. Maher said. "Our politics are not dictated by such petty considerations."

Muhammad M. Sobeih, the Palestinian ambassador to the Arab League, said the entire imbroglio reflected badly on the ability of the Bush administration to restore calm in the Middle East.

"President Mubarak is disappointed, so why would he come?" Mr. Sobeih said. "If America could not pressure the Israelis as promised to come, then how can we expect the Americans to help implement the initiative. The initiative would be completely in vain."

Some analysts said that despite moderate Arabs' public statements of disappointment, they might be served by a gathering without Mr. Arafat. Given Mr. Arafat's penchant for sudden theatrics, his absence allows states like Saudi Arabia and Jordan to shepherd a straightforward peace initiative without worrying about any potentially damaging, unscripted moves on his part.

At the same time, he remains a hero for staying on Palestinian territory and is likely to address the gathering by a television link. By keeping him away, Arab commentators noted, the Israelis are only strengthening his position. A few months ago Arab leaders were barely calling Mr. Arafat. Now they are all lauding him as a living symbol of Palestinian resistance.

"The Israelis gave him an extra life, although this is probably his ninth life," said Abdel Rahman al-Rashed, editor in chief of the Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper, a pan-Arab daily published in London.

Arab states were also concerned that Mr. Sharon might have made good on his threats to bar Mr. Arafat from returning if he made any kind of incendiary speech in Beirut.

Officials feared that would have instantly withered the peace initiative. "You can't on the one hand be launching a very forthcoming initiative and on the other hand be faced with Israel's refusal to let him back," said Marwan Muasher, Jordan's foreign minister. "The two don't go together."

About half the heads of state from the 22-member Arab League will not be present, with the poor attendance likely to damage the initiative by making it appear as less than a concerted effort. Its proponents wanted to give the Israeli public the sense that all Arabs were willing to change the dynamics of the relationship. Mr. Sharon's action and the absence of a moderate like Mr. Mubarak might inspire hard-line states to resurrect attacks on Israel in the communiqué to be approved by the Arab leaders.