Saudi Plan Causes Arab Rift; Israel Finds Aspect Unacceptable

Saudi Arabia's plan to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is causing a rift among Arabs ahead of a key summit, and an Israeli official said Sunday that its main provision was an unacceptable precondition for talks.

The proposal floated by Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah two weeks ago envisions full Arab political, economic and cultural relations with Israel if the Jewish state withdraws from Arab lands it captured in the 1967 Mideast war. Abdullah has said he would try to persuade Arab leaders to adopt his plan at the March 27-28 Arab League summit in Beirut, Lebanon.

Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi rejected the plan Saturday, saying it was "shocking" and entailed "cheap bargaining."

In an interview on the influential pan-Arab satellite TV station Al-Jazeera, Abdul-bary Atwan, editor of the London-based Arabic daily Al-Quds, said the plan constitutes a reward for Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. "In my view, it causes more problems for the Arabs," Atwan said.

In Israel, Sharon's Cabinet made no formal decision about Saudi proposal at its weekly meeting Sunday, and Sharon — who has not commented publicly about the plan — reportedly said only that he wanted to see more details. In the past, Sharon has ruled out a return to the 1967 borders.

But Cabinet Secretary Gideon Saar told reporters after the meeting that the Saudi provision on a withdrawal to the prewar lines was unacceptable as a starting point for negotiations.

"We will not be able to accept, in principle, something dictated before negotiations," Saar said. "The frontier, in the whole area, will be determined only by negotiation."

Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres and Defense Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer, both of the center-left Labor party, have said that the Saudi plan has positive elements and should be explored. Hard-liners in Sharon's coalition government have dismissed it out of hand.

On the other side of the divide, militant Muslim groups in the Palestinian territories and in Lebanon have also criticized the plan.

Walid al-Tabtabi, a Kuwaiti lawmaker known for his radical Islamic views, described the plan as a "grave strategic mistake." In a statement published in Sunday's newspapers, he said he doubted that the Saudi heir apparent would actually accept an Israeli embassy in Saudi Arabia, birthplace of Islam and its 7th century prophet Muhammad.

Syria, a traditional Saudi ally and foe of Israel, has remained silent. Syrian President Bashar Assad will travel to Saudi Arabia this week for talks on the plan, Saudi media reported Sunday.

After a meeting in Beirut on Sunday, Assad and Lebanese President Emile Lahoud did not comment on the proposal, saying in a joint statement that the plan would be discussed at the Arab summit.

They reiterated the position Lebanon and Syria share — that any settlement must include a full Israeli withdrawal from occupied Arab territories and the right of return for Palestinian refugees.

Their reticence contrasted with praise the proposal has received from some other Arab nations, including the only two that have signed peace treaties with Israel — Egypt and Jordan.

The discussion came as fighting flared after 17 months, with 21 Israelis killed in a two-day string of Palestinian attacks that followed three days of Israeli incursions in which 23 Palestinians were killed.

Rejecting the plan on Saturday, Gadhafi said Libya would quit the "ridiculous" Arab League that was "unable to arrive at any solutions" to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

But on Sunday, Arab League secretary-general Amr Moussa said Libya will attend the summit. Egypt's Middle East News Agency quoted Moussa as saying that Gadhafi would delay Libya's withdrawal from the league, but offered no other details.

Moussa said he will visit Saudi Arabia Monday for a meeting with the author of the plan, Abdullah.

The initiative is drawing attention from the Bush administration, whose support is crucial. CIA Director George Tenet flew to Saudi Arabia last week to discuss it.

The plan has attracted praise from the United Nations, the European Union and the Palestinian Authority. Senior Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat called it the best Arab peace plan since the 1991 Madrid peace conference, the official Petra news agency reported Friday.

French President Jacques Chirac expressed the support of his country and the EU for the "ideas and visions" in the plan, the official Saudi Press Agency reported Sunday.

Whether it succeeds or not, Abdullah's plan may help Saudi Arabia improve its ties with the United States, its closest Western ally and foreign backer of more than 50 years. Abdullah has been running the nation since his half brother King Fahd suffered a stroke in 1995.

Relations between Saudi Arabia and the United States have been strained since the Sept. 11 attacks and the start of the U.S.-led campaign against terrorism, although both insist ties remain strong.