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Rice to visit Mideast, talks up Saudi peace plan

By Staff
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Washington, Mar 15: US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said she will visit the Middle East next week and spoke favorably of a Saudi peace plan, despite analysts' skepticism that it can work.

There is growing interest in the Saudi plan drawn up at a 2002 Arab League summit in Beirut in which Arab nations offered Israel normal ties in return for full withdrawal from land it occupied in the 1967 Middle East war.

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has recently praised elements of the plan, although its call for Israel to withdraw to pre-1967 borders and to grant Palestinians a right of return to Israel would appear politically impossible for him.

Asked about the Saudi plan at a news conference with Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, Rice spoke of ''the clear need for an Israeli-Arab reconciliation to accompany the ...

resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.'' ''I always think it is a favorable matter when people are talking about resolution of long-standing conflicts,'' she said, declining to comment on the specifics of the Saudi proposal yesterday.

Livni said: ''In order to send a clear message also to the Arab world we said that some parts of this initiative are of course positive.'' But she suggested the right of return for Palestinian refugees was problematic and would undermine the two-state solution of separate Israeli and Palestinian states.

''I would like to see Arab leaders normalize their relations with Israel without waiting for peace between Israel and the Palestinians to be completed,'' she added.

Many doubt that Rice, who held talks with Olmert and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas during a visit to the region last month, can achieve much given deep divides among the Palestinians and the political weakness of the Olmert government.

Palestinian officials said Abbas of Fatah and Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh of Hamas agreed on the make-up of a Palestinian unity government yesterday and will submit it to parliament for approval on Saturday.

It is unclear whether such a government will comply with international conditions that it recognize Israel, renounce violence and respect past peace agreements. If it does not, Israel and the United States are unlikely to deal with it, making progress on a peace agreement even more elusive.

Rice did not offer details about her trip late next week but she is expected to meet Israeli and Palestinian officials.

Egypt's presidential spokesman has said she will visit Egypt ahead of a March 28-29 Arab League summit in Saudi Arabia.

Middle East analysts suggested the revived talk of the Saudi initiative may reflect a US desire to curry favor with Saudi Arabia to gain its help in quelling the violence in neighboring Iraq.

''We need the help of the Saudis in Iraq. This was a major initiative on their part. It gives them credibility and prestige to have us talking about it again.'' said Edward Walker, a former US ambassador to Israel and Egypt.

Aaron Miller, a former State Department Middle East negotiator, questioned whether the renewed talk of the Saudi proposal would lead to anything given its call for Israel to return to 1967 borders and for Palestinian refugees to have a right of return.

''The Saudi initiative is not an initiative. It is a set of principles which I am persuaded neither the Arabs nor the Israelis can adhere to. The Israelis can't do what (it) calls for and the Arabs are not prepared to reciprocate,'' said Miller. ''I don't take a whole lot of this seriously.''

Reuters

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