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Saudi Peace Plan Gains Support

Prime Minister Ariel Sharon told a European Union envoy Tuesday he was willing to meet Saudi officials, publicly or behind the scenes, to explore their proposals for an overall Mideast peace, the European diplomat said.

The proposals floated by Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah have gotten a warm response from the Palestinians, some Arab nations and some Israeli officials — including the foreign and defense ministers. Sharon's aides, however, say they want more details.

Javier Solana, the EU's foreign affairs chief, announced that he was making a previously unscheduled trip to Riyadh on Wednesday to hear details of the Saudi peace plan firsthand from Abdullah.

In violence early Wednesday, one Palestinian gunman was killed and five injured when Israeli tanks tried to enter the Balata refugee camp next to Nablus, Palestinians said. All were linked to Yasser Arafat's Fatah movement, they said. The Israeli military had no immediate comment. Israel has held four apartment buildings next to the camp for several days.

Late Tuesday, Israeli troops moved into the West Bank village of Yatta, south of Hebron, Palestinians said. The Israeli military had no immediate comment. Palestinian gunmen shot and wounded an Israeli teen-ager near Yatta on Monday.

President Bush "praised the idea," White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said Tuesday, but he said the Saudi prince's proposal was not a breakthrough.

"The president this morning spoke with Crown Prince Abdullah of Saudi Arabia," said White House spokesman Ari Fleischer. "The president praised the crown prince's ideas regarding the full Arab-Israeli normalization once a comprehensive peace agreement has been reached."

The outlines of the plan were first disclosed in a column in The New York Times by Thomas Friedman after an interview with Abdullah in Saudi Arabia.

According to the Friedman report, the entire Arab world would make peace with the Jewish state if it withdrew from the West Bank, Gaza Strip and east Jerusalem — land captured in the 1967 Mideast War.

Palestinians have endorsed the Saudi initiative, saying that it fits their policy of offering Israel full peace for full withdrawal.

Solana said Sharon told him he "would be willing to meet anybody from Saudi Arabia, formally, informally, publicly, discreetly, whatever, to get better information about the significance of this idea."

Saudi Arabia has not commented on the reaction to the proposals. The state-run newspaper Al-Watan, which usually reflects government thinking, said no Israeli-Saudi visits could take place until a Mideast peace agreement had been reached.

Bush telephoned the Saudi crown prince Tuesday to express U.S. hopes of working with him "in the pursuit of Middle East peace," said Fleischer.

However, Fleischer appeared to question the plan's bottom line. "It's important to have a vision of what peace should look like at the end of the day," he said, "but it's a long time until the end of the day in the Middle East."

The Bush administration also stood by its own formula for reopening Mideast peace talks, which includes a hoped-for cease-fire between Israel and the Palestinians to be followed by peacemaking efforts recommended by a panel headed by former Senate Democratic leader George Mitchell.

"It doesn't, in and of itself, change anything on the ground in the Middle East," Fleischer said of Abdullah's land-for-peace proposition. "The situation remains a very complicated situation and a very violent one."

In an attempt to address the more immediate concern — bringing calm after 17 months of violence — Israeli and Palestinian security chiefs resumed talks late Tuesday on measures to stop violence and ease Israeli restrictions over Palestinian territory.

The meeting in Tel Aviv lasted more than four hours, said Palestinian officials and Israel Radio.

When contacts were resumed after a long break last Thursday, the two sides agreed that Israel would suspend attacks against Palestinian militants, incursions and airstrikes, while the Palestinians undertook to stop militants from attacking Israelis.

However, after a day of incidents Monday, when three Israelis and two Palestinians were killed, Israeli officials said the deal was off and Israel would hit back.

The Tuesday security meeting appeared to put off Israeli retaliation. Israel Radio said the Israelis demanded Palestinian action to stop terror attacks.

Numerous international efforts to broker a truce have so far failed to quell the fighting in which more than 1,100 people have been killed since a Palestinian uprising against Israeli occupation erupted in September 2000.

Arafat said he ordered the talks restarted after a plea from Solana. "This is a request from our friend, Javier Solana, and to that I cannot say no," Arafat told reporters.

Solana said he had more details about the Saudi plan than appeared in Saudi and U.S. media, but he would not disclose them.

Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov voiced his country's support for the plan. Egypt and Jordan, the only Arab states with peace treaties with Israel, were among several Arab states to welcome Abdullah's comments.

Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and Jordanian King Abdullah discussed the Saudi proposal during a meeting in Cairo Tuesday.

Israeli Defense Minister Ben-Eliezer said Tuesday that Saudi plan "contains positive elements and should be encouraged."

Ben-Eliezer heads the moderate Labor party, partner with Sharon's hawkish Likud in a broad-based coalition government.

It is unlikely that the coalition would survive dealing directly with the issue of borders between Israel and a Palestinian state. Labor favors giving up most of the territory for peace, including the dismantling of many Jewish settlements. In contrast, Sharon has talked of offering the Palestinians a state in about 40 percent of the West Bank and much of Gaza, without removing settlements.

However, up to now even Labor has rejected withdrawal from all the territories Israel captured in the 1967 war, as the Palestinians have demanded. Foreign Minister Shimon Peres of Labor told Israel TV Tuesday that unlike the Arab interpretation, Israel does not believe that U.N. Security Council resolutions require a pullback to the pre-1967 war line.

"There is a disagreement between us and the Palestinians on this issue, and there is no reason to deny it," Peres said during a visit to Paris.

Expressing qualified interest in the Saudi proposal, Sharon aides have been careful to praise the initiative while disagreeing with its contents.

Sharon adviser Daniel Ayalon said he expected Solana's trip to Riyadh to provide much-needed clarification of the Saudi plan.

"We still expect to hear whether there is actually an initiative," he said. "We can't rely just on media reports."