Bush and Saudis agree plan for peace talks

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The United States and Saudi Arabia have agreed a new strategy aimed at securing a lasting peace in the Middle East, starting with a full ceasefire and Israeli withdrawal, and culminating in an international conference to agree a final settlement and launch an independent Palestinian state.

The blueprint was elaborated at talks last week in Texas between President George Bush and Crown Prince Abdullah, according to American officials.

It sees the US leaning on Israel to make a full withdrawal from the West Bank, while the Arab states pressure Yasser Arafat, the Palestinian leader, to commit to end violence against Israel. Once this is achieved, Israelis and Palestinians would come under intense international pressure to negotiate a final political settlement ­ unlikely to be very different from the deal that Bill Clinton tried to broker in the final months of his presidency.

According to Saudi and American thinking, the forum for these talks could be an international conference backed by America, the European Union, Russia and the United Nations, and attended by the five Arab states of Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Morocco, Syria and Jordan.

The topic is likely to feature prominently in talks today in Washington between Mr Bush and an EU delegation led by Jose Maria Aznar, the Spanish Prime Minister, during the annual American-EU summit. Madrid would be a possible venue for the peace talks.

The emerging strategy underlines how Mr Bush now accepts that, whatever his initial reluctance, America cannot stand aloof from the Middle East conflict without risking damage to its wider relations with the Arab world.

The blueprint, however, poses a number of vital questions. It assumes, first, that when Ariel Sharon, the Israeli Prime Minister, goes to Washington next week, President Bush is prepared to be a lot tougher on him ­ even if that means upsetting the conservative right.

It also assumes that Arab leaders, not least those of Saudi Arabia, will put genuine pressure on the Palestinians at their expected meeting with Mr Arafat later this month.

The conference itself would face even greater hurdles, such as Mr Sharon's refusal to deal personally with Mr Arafat and his rejection of any freeze, let alone rollback, of Israeli settlements in the West Bank.