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Abdullah's Little Ray of Light

After 17 months of violence, Israelis and Palestinians have received yet another peace proposal from a foreign mediator. But the proposal's unlikely source has aroused curiosity and hope.

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Saudi Arabian Prince Abdullah steps up to the negotiation table

It has gotten to the point, in the dark swamp in which the Israeli-Palestinian peace process is mired, that any beacon of light, no matter how faint, brings some sort of a hope.

The latest ray came, unexpectedly, from an Arab country that has historically had little to do with the Israelis. Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Abdullah floated a peace proposal earlier this week that called on the Arab states to normalize relations with Israel if Israel fully withdraws from lands occupied in the 1967 Middle East War.

Abdullah’s proposal, though thin and incomplete, has drawn worldwide praise.

Dovish Israeli Foreign Minister, Shimon Peres, said Saudia Arabia "for the first time, is openly taking the side of the peace process in the Middle East."

The United States Secretary of State Colin Powell called it "an important step."

France’s President Jacques Chirac called the plan "strong and courageous."

But there was muted response from the man most able to make it happen: Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.

Asked about a plan proposed by his justice minister that Abdullah be invited to Jerusalem, Sharon replied that he had "already done some things about this matter."

Sharon's way

The prime minister ahs been steadfast in his demand that there be a cease fire for one week before any peace talks take effect. After ordering that Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat do more to crack down on the ambush and suicide attacks that have terrorized Israeli citizens, Sharon eventually gave up, severing ties with the Palestinian leader in December.

The move immediately prompted pleas from the European Union that Sharon rethink his strategy as the conflict spiraled into further violence. Sharon refused, and ordered Israeli tanks to surround Arafat in the West Bank town of Ramallah.

Europe has trying for some time to get Sharon to withdraw from Ramallah, with little success. The United States has stayed silent on the conflict since withdrawing their Middle East envoy, Anthony Zinni, from the region earlier this year.

Hope amid continued violence

Palestinian suicide bombers and gunmen continue to attack. Their strikes prompt retaliatory strikes by the Israeli Defense Force and stoke fears in the Middle East and Europe that the "cycle of violence" will never end.

The Europeans have jumped on Abdullah’s proposal. The European Union’s foreign policy chief Javier Solana, in the West Bank for talks with Arafat announced on Tuesday he was cutting his trip short to head to Jeddah, in Saudi Arabia to discuss the plans in detail.

But the Saudis only want to make a detailed plan public at an Arab League summit in Beirut next month.

Europe and the United States may have to hope Abdullah’s promise is enough to tide the troubled region over until then.

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