Israel ready to discuss peace plan with Saudis

Wednesday, February 27, 2002

JERUSALEM -- Prime Minister Ariel Sharon told an EU envoy Tuesday he was willing to meet Saudi officials, publicly or behind the scenes, to explore their proposals for an overall Mideast peace, the European diplomat said.

The proposals floated by Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah have gotten a warm response from the Palestinians, some Arab nations and some Israeli officials -- including the foreign and defense ministers. Sharon's aides, however, say they want more details.

Javier Solana, the European Union's foreign affairs chief, announced that he was making a previously unscheduled trip to Riyadh today to hear details of the Saudi peace plan firsthand from Abdullah.

Israeli officials said that at this point, the initiative is only a newspaper article. It states the principle that in exchange for a complete Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank, Gaza Strip and east Jerusalem, the entire Arab world would make peace with the Jewish state.

Palestinians endorsed the Saudi initiative, saying it fits their policy of offering Israel full peace for full withdrawal.

Solana said Sharon told him he "would be willing to meet anybody from Saudi Arabia, formally, informally, publicly, discreetly, whatever, to get better information about the significance of this idea."

Saudi Arabia has not commented on the reaction to the proposals. The state-run newspaper Al-Watan, which usually reflects government thinking, said no Israeli-Saudi visits could take place until a Mideast peace agreement had been reached.

President Bush telephoned the Saudi crown prince Tuesday to express U.S. hopes of working with him "in the pursuit of Middle East peace," said White House spokesman Ari Fleischer.

However, Fleischer appeared to question the plan's bottom line. "It's important to have a vision of what peace should look like at the end of the day," he said, "but it's a long time until the end of the day in the Middle East."

Palestinian talks

In an attempt to address a more immediate concern -- bringing calm after 17 months of violence -- Israeli and Palestinian security chiefs resumed talks Tuesday on measures to stop violence and ease Israeli restrictions over Palestinian territory.

Palestinian officials confirmed that the meeting began in Tel Aviv after nightfall.

The security chiefs met Thursday after an especially violent week of Palestinian attacks and Israeli reprisals. However, the Palestinians called off a meeting Sunday.

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