Israel: A Saudi Peace Proposal Puts Sharon in a Bind

As the Palestinian intifada against Israel moves into its 18th month, momentum is gaining for two opposing plans that reflect just how desperate the situation has become.

In mid-February, Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Abdullah floated a radical peace proposal--the first from that powerful Arab nation in 21 years. Still vaguely defined, the plan would involve the granting of diplomatic recognition of Israel by 22 Arab governments in exchange for the creation of a Palestinian state and Israel's complete withdrawal from the West Bank and Gaza to borders existing before the 1967 Six-Day War. The goal would be the normalization of relations between Israel and the Arab states.

Excitement is growing around the world that Abdullah's suggestion could lead to a breakthrough. Leaders of Jordan and Egypt, as well as Palestinian Authority Chief Yassir Arafat, strongly back it. Their hope is that the proposal will be considered at an Arab League summit on Mar. 27-28. European leaders and the Bush Administration are also welcoming the move. "We get the sense that Abdullah is serious. It's a very interesting proposal," says an Administration official. Vice-President Dick Cheney is likely to raise the issue with both the Arabs and Israelis when he heads to the region in mid-March. On Feb. 26, even Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon expressed interest. "There are definitely positive elements in this initiative, and Israel should not reject it out of hand," he said in a statement released by his office.

But Sharon is also moving ahead with another radical plan that is widely popular in Israel and could well scuttle the Saudis' regionwide push. The Israeli Prime Minister announced on Feb. 21 that steps are under way to impose "buffer zones" in the West Bank to protect Israelis from Palestinian militants. The policy, known as "unilateral separation," could cost up to $400 million and would involve the construction of elaborate fences, checkpoints, and military patrols along the 240-mile 1967 border with the West Bank. Some 150,000 Israeli settlers would remain in place, guarded by the Israeli Army. Defense sources say the Israeli company Magal Security Systems is in talks with the government on building the zones. Work could start within weeks.

This could be bad news for the Saudi effort because Arafat, along with Arab governments, including the Saudis, strongly oppose the separation policy. They say it would lead to further Palestinian isolation and economic suffering. Some analysts think it will spur more violence. "Any unilateral attempt at separation is doomed to failure, as the Palestinians will make every effort to infiltrate [Israel]," says Jonathan Fighel, a senior analyst at Israel's International Policy Institute for Counter-Terrorism and a former military governor of Ramallah.

The trouble is, Sharon is under pressure to deliver on his promises to improve security. He is also facing a challenge from former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who now leads Sharon in polls by some 15 points. Netanyahu advocates sending the Israeli Army into Palestinian cities and toppling the Palestinian Authority. All this helps explain why Sharon reversed his previous opposition to buffer zones.

Could the Saudi-led effort move ahead even if Israel sticks to its separation policy? It's hard to see how Abdullah's proposal could work without Sharon backing down. For that to happen, the level of violence would have to decline over a substantial period of time, and right now, that looks unlikely. The Saudi proposal holds promise at a dark time for the region. But much will have to change if the region's inhabitants--and the world--are to avoid disappointment in the Mideast peace process once again.

By Neal Sandler in Jerusalem and Stan Crock in Washington

Edited by Rose Brady

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