WASHINGTON - A Mideast peace initiative floated by Saudi Arabia's crown prince has picked up surprising momentum, gaining wide attention and drawing cautious praise from President Bush, Arabs and Israelis.
Crown Prince Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz's overture comes amid a void in peacemaking efforts and at a time when Arabs and Israelis are becoming increasingly dispirited over the ever-worsening bloodshed between Israel and the Palestinians.
Abdullah has informally called for normal diplomatic and trade relations between the Arab states and Israel in return for Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem, territory it has held since the Six-Day War in June 1967.
Although he did not specify it, Abdullah presumably also wants an Israeli pullback from the Golan Heights, which it seized from Syria in 1967.
Abdullah's initiative marks one of the few occasions in the past two decades in which the insular, deeply conservative Persian Gulf kingdom has assumed a high profile in Arab-Israeli affairs. The idea takes on added significance because of Saudi Arabia's vast oil wealth, importance in the Islamic world and strategic ties to the United States.
White House spokesman Ari Fleischer told reporters that the president called Abdullah yesterday and "praised the crown prince's ideas regarding the full Arab-Israeli normalization once a comprehensive peace agreement has been reached."
The European Union's foreign policy chief, Javier Solana, cut short a trip to Israel and the Palestinian territories to meet with Abdullah in Riyadh today.
Solana reported that Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon "would like to know more about the content, and he would be ready to meet anybody from Saudi Arabia, formally, informally, publicly, discreetly, whatever, to get better information about this initiative."
Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres called Abdullah's proposal "a positive development," and Defense Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer said, "It contains innovative elements and should therefore be promoted, not rejected." Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat also has endorsed the initiative.
Abdullah, 78, who in effect has ruled Saudi Arabia since King Fahd became incapacitated in the late 1990s after a stroke, put forward the proposal in a conversation with Thomas L. Friedman of the New York Times, who disclosed it in a column Feb. 17.
Abdullah told Friedman he had prepared a speech for delivery at next month's Arab League summit offering the idea of "full normalization of relations" with Israel in exchange for "full withdrawal from all the occupied territory, in accordance with U.N. resolutions, including in Jerusalem."
An Abdullah aide, Adel al-Jubeir, described normalization in a television interview as moving "a step beyond peace." He did not elaborate, but the term usually includes trade, tourism and cultural exchanges. Only Egypt and Jordan have signed peace treaties with Israel, and the Egyptian-Israeli relationship is frequently described as a "cold peace."
U.S. officials have often held out hope that once Israel made peace with its immediate neighbors - the Palestinians, Syria and Lebanon - it could expect peace with most of the Arab world, hastening its integration into the Middle East and greatly improving its security. Abdullah's proposal is the first time a Saudi leader has endorsed the idea publicly.
"The importance of it is it sends a signal to the Israeli public by telling them that peace with the broader Arab world is possible should they make peace with their neighbors," al-Jubeir said.
Saudi Arabia has rarely been on the front lines of war or diplomacy in the Arab-Israeli conflict. Although a member of the Arab League, it was not among the states whose armies invaded Israel in 1948 after the Jewish state was formed and did not participate militarily in the 1967 war. It entered the October 1973 war only toward the end.
In 1981, then-Crown Prince Fahd put forward a plan that implied a willingness to make peace with Israel by recognizing the right of all states in the region to live in peace, but that plan was rejected by Arab radicals and later watered down.
After the United States protected Saudi Arabia from Iraq in the Persian Gulf war of 1991, Riyadh played a quiet but important behind-the-scenes role in the Arab-Israeli peace process begun by President George Bush that led to the Madrid summit of 1991, which launched peace talks between Israel and Syria, Jordan, Lebanon and the Palestinians.
Through the 1990s, the Saudi ambassador in Washington, Prince Bandar bin Sultan, worked to forge ties with leaders in the American Jewish community.
But Saudi Arabia never made any official overture to the Jewish state or welcomed any Israeli to the kingdom. It also participated reluctantly in the U.S.-backed economic meetings and "multilateral talks" aimed at getting Arab states and Israel to address regional problems.