Saudis Patiently Push Plan ; Saudi Arabia Urged World Powers Yesterday to Force Israel to Evacuate West Bank Territory

Article excerpt

Spearheading the most credible Mideast peacemaking effort since the resurgence of the Israel-Palestinian conflict 19 months ago, Saudi Arabia is patiently but inexorably bringing Arab neighbors together around a single peace plan.

Saudi Arabia is working closely with the US to build behind-the- scenes momentum toward its March peace initiative, says Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal. The plan calls for Arab nations to recognize the Jewish state, if Israel withdraws fully from Arab territory occupied in the 1967 war.

"If there is any hope or remaining optimism for peace, it is because of the position of the Arab countries," says Prince Saud, in an interview between trips at his plush Jeddah residence on the western Red Sea flank of this vast desert kingdom.

Since Crown Prince Abdullah - the de facto leader of Saudi Arabia - met with President George W. Bush late last month at his ranch in Texas, a division of labor has emerged: Saudi Arabia is focusing Arab pressure on Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, as long as the US knuckles down on Prime Minister Sharon's military moves.

Since then, Saudi leaders have:

* helped earlier this month broker the end of the five-month Israeli siege of Mr. Arafat's office in Ramallah;

* been in "constant" daily contact with the Palestinians, insisting that Arafat do what he can to stop violence and to reform his Palestinian Authority and security forces; (Despite this, there was another suicide attack in Israel on Sunday. But US officials reacted in a lighter way. National Security Advsier Condoleeza Rice suggested the bombings were beyond Arafat's control.)

* been instrumental in getting Syria to reject "all forms of violence," which diplomats read to include suicide bombings;

* weighed in, along with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, to help forestall an invasion of the Gaza Strip earlier this month;

* and been in daily contact with Washington, pushing the Bush administration to pressure Sharon to end Israeli military incursions.

"The growing intifada has done more to threaten this regime than at any time since 1979," when anti-regime radicals took control of the Grand Mosque at Mecca, says the US official. "They are doing what you would expect them to do: plead with the US to put a cap on it."

"We are doing everything that is necessary, but every time we make a step towards compromise and peace in the Arab world, [Israel Prime Minister Ariel] Sharon steps back and raises the ante," Prince Saud says, noting that Israeli raids continue in Palestinian towns, along with more casualties.

"That is something unacceptable," Prince Saud says. "The Arab countries can't continue this policy, in the face of this disregard and these actions by Mr. Sharon."

A 'very significant' plan

The result is heavy telephone diplomacy with Washington, even as Saudi Arabia seeks to bridge Arab differences. Arab foreign ministers met in Beirut on Saturday. Arab League Secretary-General Amr Moussa ruled out a summer peace conference proposed by the US and European Union while Israel is still engaged in "occupation, murder, and sabotage"; Prince Saud reportedly did not rule out the meeting.

The Saudi peace plan is "very significant," a US official here says, because it may spell the end of the rejectionist Arab camp that refuses to make peace with Israel. "[Saudi Crown Prince] Abdullah has a lot of credibility in the Arab world. He is beyond the vision thing. He is hitting the phone."

Continued Israeli raids and Palestinian suicide bombings underscore the need for credible, mutual peace moves - and more American pressure - Saudi officials say. Sharon has rejected any return to pre-1967 borders, the key to the Saudi land-for-peace equation.

"We are daily in contact with [the Americans]," says Prince Saud. "They have shown that when they want to act, they can act decisively. …