A radical scheme born over dinner

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The Independent Online

Few news stories have made a more modest start to life. The proposal by Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Abdullah for breaking the Israel-Palestinian impasse surfaced not on the front page of The New York Times, but deep inside the newspaper in a column on the editorial columns. It was born 10 days ago and had the arcane, guarded and almost quaint headline, "An Intriguing Signal from the Saudi Crown Prince".

Until this week, the world's media steered clear. True, the Crown Prince is one of the heavyweights of the Arab world, whose views make a serious impact in the Middle East and Washington. But the story was overshadowed by the worsening violence on the ground, the lack of any reason to justify even a glimmer of optimism, and the absence of any clear response of the key mediators, the Americans. Yet it has survived and finally taken root, becoming the first diplomatic development with any potential – albeit slight – for months.

From Riyadh, Thomas Friedman, a veteran Middle East commentator, said in his column that he took the opportunity of a dinner with Abdullah bin Abdulaziz, Saudi's Crown Prince and de facto ruler, to put forward a suggestion.

He did not categorically identify where the idea came from, although he had raised it in an article this month. There are bound, in the conspiracy-minded Middle East, to be those who now suggest that its origins lie inside the US State Department.

Why don't the the 22 members of the Arab League make a "simple, clear-cut" proposal to Israel, asked Mr Friedman? In return for total withdrawal by Israel from the territories it occupied after 4 June 1967, and the establishment of a Palestinian state, the league should offer Israel full diplomatic relations, normalised trade and security guarantees.

Crown Prince Abdullah looked at him in "mock astonishment", he says, and asked if he had broken into his desk. It was, the Saudi leader said, "exactly the idea he had in mind", and he had even been thinking of delivering a speech on the subject before the Arab League meets in Beirut on 27 March, to "mobilise the entire Arab world behind it". He said he changed his mind after Israel escalated the violence to an unprecedented level.

"I wanted to find a way to make it clear to the Israeli people that the Arabs don't reject or despise them," the Crown Prince told him, "But the Arab people do reject what their leadership is now doing to the Palestinians, which is inhumane and oppressive. And I thought of this as a possible signal to the Israeli people."

Now, the Crown Prince's proposal is officially in place, and clinging to life. How long it will survive in this ruthless climate is another matter.

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