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Arab states eye a way forward

In the turbulent bazaar of Middle East peace negotiations, the Palestinians never had much to barter.

They boasted little credible military force, no land and fickle friends _ the Arab nations next door _ who tended to offer flowery lip service at most. But there was one thing the Israelis sought through the Palestinians: acceptance. Once their hostility eased, the Israelis sensed, the rest of the neighborhood would come along.

That is the essence of the Saudi initiative that Crown Prince Abdullah is expected to unveil to his fellow Arab leaders at their summit meeting this week in Beirut, Lebanon: If Israel ends its conflict with the Palestinians, the Arab world will reciprocate by accepting Israel. In other words, there can be normal relations _ not necessarily warm, but without the threat to drive the Israelis into the sea. That is what Israelis have said they have sought most since their state was founded in 1948.

But what exactly is propelling this new Arab suggestion about ending the conflict? Certainly, as they gather in Beirut, Arab leaders who propose peace face opposition in some quarters back home, from many intellectuals and from a public that applauds the Palestinians' sudden willingness to stand up militarily and their ability to score psychological victories against Israel. Opponents cling to the old notion that accepting Israel is tantamount to surrender and welcome reports of mounting Israeli casualties as a sign that the other side's morale is finally being worn down.

But the leaders of some of the most influential Arab nations believe the conflict has moved to a point where it risks causing trouble at home. First, they want to reduce the appalling human toll. Second, a United States newly bloodied by suicide terrorism is identifying Palestinian violence as terrorism and supporters of those tactics as fellow-travelers.

Third, anger over the issue is the most likely spark for domestic unrest during trying economic times, and it could help the recruitment efforts of those, like Osama bin Laden, who attract recruits by denouncing Israel as they seek the violent overthrow of their own Arab governments.

Finally, until recently the United States has pointedly stayed aloof from the conflict, but the Bush administration, suddenly conscious that it needs Arab support if it wants to carry its war on terrorism into Iraq, is showing renewed interest in becoming an intermediary.

The basic proposition as outlined by the Saudis so far is not new. Abdullah is likely to put it this way to his fellow Arabs, assuming violence doesn't preclude any talk of peace in Beirut this week: Let's get Israel to redraw the lines where they were just before the 1967 war, get the Palestinians a state with a chunk of eastern Jerusalem for its capital and send back into Israel a reasonable number of refugees from the 1948 war. In exchange, the rest of the Arab countries will roll out some form of welcome wagon.

"You have to give the Israelis something in an Arab currency," said Abdel Monem Said, director of the Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies in Cairo.

Arab officials and analysts do not consider the Saudi proposal a concrete prescription to be followed by all 22 Arab League members, but a general formula. But they believe that if Israeli settlements were being dismantled and Palestinians were celebrating their state, it would make an Israeli embassy palatable in almost every capital and would dry up support for extreme groups that seek to destroy Israel.

"We are not talking only about the end of belligerency, we are talking about relations," said Marwan Muasher, the Jordanian foreign minister. "There will be an overall declaration that everybody agrees to, but you can't expect every single Arab country to have the same relations with Israel. Will every country have an exchange of theater groups, for example? I don't know; that is up to negotiation."

The Saudi plan

As outlined by Crown Prince Abdullah, the Saudi peace initiative to be presented Wednesday and Thursday at the Arab League Summit in Beirut, Lebanon, calls for:

+ Full Israeli withdrawal from all occupied territories, returning to 1967 prewar boundaries.

+ Full normalization of relations between Arab nations and Israel, understood to mean typical interactions between states including exchanges of ambassadors and trade relations.

Beyond this basic outline, the following issues are said to be part of the initiative:

+ Palestinian statehood with east Jerusalem as capital.

+ Palestinian refugees would be allowed to return to their homes, including in Israel, or be compensated for losses.