Saudis back deal to lift Israel boycott Egypt's plan seeks halt to settlements in occupied territory

July 21, 1991|By Thomas L. Friedman | Thomas L. Friedman,New York Times News Service

JIDDA, Saudi Arabia -- Saudi Arabia announced yesterday that it would support Egypt's offer to end the 43-year-old Arab boycott of Israel if the Jewish state would halt construction of settlements in the occupied territories.

The move by the Saudis, perhaps the most influential participants in the boycott, came during a visit to Jidda by Secretary of State James A. Baker III. Just hours earlier, Lebanon announced that it would join Syria in supporting President Bush's proposal for an Arab-Israeli peace conference.

The Saudi and Lebanese actions were orchestrated by the United States and were designed to increase pressure on Israel to drop its opposition to the U.S.-designed peace conference on the eve of Mr. Baker's arrival in Jerusalem today.

On Friday, during Mr. Baker's stop in Cairo, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak called on Arab nations to suspend the boycott in return for a suspension of settlements.

Mr. Baker is hoping that if he can line up enough Arab overtures of this nature, he will, at best, be able to persuade Israelis that there really is a change in mood in the Arab world on the question of reconciliation with Israel and, at a minimum, make it politically very difficult for Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir to continue to oppose the peace conference.

Up to now, Mr. Shamir has categorically rejected any trade-off between the Arab boycott and Israeli settlement-building.

There was no official reaction in Jerusalem to the Saudi move.

The Arab economic boycott of Israel has been in effect since the nation was born in 1948. All 21 members of the Arab League take part in it, except Egypt, which signed a peace treaty with Israel in 1979. Saudi Arabia, as the first Arab nation besides Egypt to endorse a conditional end to the boycott, is clearly taking a certain political risk both at home and abroad.

After talks last night between Secretary Baker and King Fahd of Saudi Arabia, the Saudi government issued a formal statement, saying:

"The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has closely followed both the positive position adopted by the Syrian Arab Republic under the leadership of President Hafez el Assad to promote the peace process by agreeing to participate in the forthcoming peace conference, as well as the statements made by His Excellency Hosni Mubarak, president of Egypt, indicating that Israel should suspend the building of settlements, and in such a case it would be possible for the Arab countries to take an appropriate step by suspending the Arab boycott of Israel."

The Saudi declaration continued, "Saudi Arabia supports the statement made by His Excellency President Hosni Mubarak."

Mr. Mubarak first proposed a trade-off between a suspension of the Arab boycott and a suspension of Israeli settlements in the West Bank, Gaza Strip and Israeli-annexed East Jerusalem after talks Friday in Cairo with Mr. Baker. But since Cairo already has peaceful relations with Israel and no longer honors the boycott, the offer had little effect.

The fact that an influential Arab nation such as Saudi Arabia is now endorsing the proposal should not only give it weight in the Arab world but also will have to be taken note of by the Israelis. That certainly is what Mr. Baker is hoping.

Reacting to the Saudi announcement, Mr. Baker said, "We are pleased to see this step by the Saudi government because it indicates a willingness to take concrete steps toward Israel, if Israel is willing to reciprocate. A suspension of the boycott, of course, would signal for one thing a willingness to reconcile with Israel, and clearly reciprocal confidence-building moves of this nature have got to improve the climate for peace. Hopefully, they will make the possibility of progress towards peace much greater."

The Arab boycott of Israel has two basic elements: a primary boycott that bans all trade between Arab countries and Israel, and a secondary boycott that also bans any Arab nation from doing business with any company that does business with Israel.

A senior Saudi official briefing reporters after the announcement yesterday said it was "too early" to say whether the proposed boycott suspension would apply to both the primary and the secondary boycotts.

Indeed, it was clear from his briefing that the whole idea has not been fully thought out by either Arab or U.S. officials and that for now it is designed more for its political effect than its immediate applicability.

Politically, it is not insignificant. Saudi Arabia is the richest Arab nation, and if the Saudis and others were really prepared to trade the boycott for an end to settlements, that gesture would offer Israel both economic and political payoffs. It would offer both the prospect of trade between Israel and its neighbors and an end to Israel's almost total isolation.

Saudi officials conceded that it still was not clear how many other Arab nations would be ready to join in this offer and particularly whether Syria would. The Arab League boycott office is situated in Damascus, the Syrian capital.

As for Lebanon's announcement, it came earlier in the day during talks in Cairo between Lebanese Foreign Minister Fares Bouez and Mr. Baker. Mr. Bouez gave Mr. Baker his country's endorsement for the U.S.-designed peace conference, which came as little surprise since Syria, which in effect dominates the Lebanese government these days, gave its go-ahead Thursday.

"Lebanon is supporting the American proposition based on 242 and 338, resolutions of the United Nations, and is ready to be present at the peace conference raised on these subjects," Mr. Bouez said.

Resolution 242 calls for Israel to trade lands occupied in the 1967 war in return for secure and recognized boundaries with its Arab neighbors. Resolution 338 calls for talks to put Resolution 242 into effect.

Asked whether in the context of such a peace conference Lebanon would be ready to enter into separate two-way negotiations with Israel, as the U.S. plan also proposes, Mr. Bouez said, "Yes."

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