U.S.- Saudis' land-for-peace proposal shows promise

Saturday, February 23, 2002

WASHINGTON -- A Saudi offer of Arab peace with Israel in exchange for land to Palestinians could provide an opening as the United States makes a new push to halt the region's rising violence, Secretary of State Colin Powell said Friday.

U.S. officials called the proposal by Crown Prince Abdullah of Saudi Arabia significant because it came from a ruler viewed as a strong Palestinian supporter and was immediately praised by moderate Arab nations including Egypt. It was expected to be a key topic when President Bush and Egypt's president meet next week.

A top State Department official, Assistant Secretary of State William Burns, was meeting Friday with the crown prince's Washington representative, Adel al-Jubeir, to explore the idea.

Powell, returning to Washington from the president's trip to Asia, said he planned a weekend of phone calls, "re-engaging" in an effort to halt Israeli-Palestinian violence that has escalated in the last week.

Powell cited the Saudi offer and the recent Palestinian Authority arrest of three militants as developments the United States might try to build on. He also called hopeful a meeting between Israeli and Palestinian security chiefs, their first in several weeks.

His spokesman, Richard Boucher, said Friday that U.S. officials "welcome the comments that we've seen from Saudi Arabia underscoring their willingness to reach out to Israel, to talk about peace."

Arafat's role

At the same time, U.S. officials reiterated that the first step toward peace is for Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat to work to stop attacks against Israelis.

"We've made absolutely clear that we think the burden, at this point, is on Chairman Arafat to take concrete steps to dismantle the groups that perpetrate violence and to end the violence," Boucher said.

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has not commented on the Saudi idea, and American officials have not yet talked with the Israelis about it.

One U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity, cautioned that U.S. officials are not clear how -- or if -- the new Saudi position would actually lead to an end to the violence.

Nevertheless, it is significant and promising because the Saudis have never made such an explicit land-for-peace offer so publicly -- and certainly not at such a high level, the U.S. official said.

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