Saudi plan becoming a force U.S. may find hard to ignore

Mideast leaders seize on long shot for peace


JERUSALEM - After rapidly gaining momentum through the Middle East and Europe since its soft launching two weeks ago, the Saudi Arabian peace idea will descend on Washington when Egypt's president, Hosni Mubarak, comes calling Tuesday.

At week's end, Vice President Dick Cheney will be heading for the Middle East, where, whatever his original agenda may have been, he is certain to be badgered relentlessly for some sign of American interest in the initiative, which comes during some of the worst violence to engulf the region in years.

The Mubarak and Cheney missions are only part of the swirl that has developed around the unexpected proposal that the crown prince and effective ruler of Saudi Arabia, Abdullah, first made in an interview published in a New York Times column Feb. 17.

Skeptics - including some in the Bush administration - initially gave the floated proposals short shrift. It was not really an initiative, they suggested, but at best a nice idea. It was not new. The Arabs would never follow through; the Israelis would never agree. Secretary of State Colin L. Powell at first said it was one of some "minor developments that we might be able to work on."

But with Israelis and Palestinians in a state of despair over ever finding peace after 17 months of unrelenting conflict, and with the Bush administration seemingly determined not to get embroiled, the Saudi proposal brought a long-absent gleam of hope.

It is not only the timing that gave the initiative its impetus. It was also that it came from Saudi Arabia, the richest and most influential Arab state, and the home of Islam's two most sacred shrines. Abdullah spoke not only of diplomatic recognition, not only of peace, but also of a "full normalization of relations" - in exchange for Israel's withdrawal from all occupied territories.

He said he had intended to ask the entire 22-nation Arab League to join in the offer at its summit meeting in Beirut on March 27-28.

Though the fate of the endeavor is uncertain, the speed with which it has swelled from a little-noted idea in a newspaper column into a serious force in the Middle East reflects the despair and the dangers that the conflict has spread through the region, and the longing to seize on anything that might point to a way out.

There is an almost universal sense in the Middle East that it is the United States, the Bush administration, that has to breathe life into the Saudi idea.

That is also the message that the Egyptian president will press on Bush when he meets him. Mubarak has been relatively reserved about the Saudi initiative in public, but according to experts on the region, he and King Abdullah of Jordan - leaders of the only two Arab countries that have diplomatic relations with Israel - were involved with the Saudi crown prince as his idea took shape.

It remains a long shot. But the fact that so basic and old a notion as land for peace could garner so much attention has lent it a strength of its own.

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