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U.S. looks to ’02 plan as path to peace

JERUSALEM – The Obama administration is exploring whether a long-abandoned initiative proposed by Saudi Arabia 11 years ago could become the basis for a regional peace agreement between Israel and its neighbors, according to Israeli and Palestinian officials.

With U.S. Secretary of State John F. Kerry due to arrive in the region over the weekend, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has been conferring with other Arab leaders on the viability of the plan, which calls for a normalization of relations between Israel and all the Arab states in exchange for the establishment of a sovereign Palestinian state.

Israeli and Palestinian officials confirmed to McClatchy Newspapers that President Obama raised the possibility of using the Arab Peace Initiative, as the plan was known, as a framework for an agreement when he was in the region last month.

“It was raised directly by Obama during his visit and during his closed-door discussion with the Palestinian leadership,” said a senior Palestinian official directly involved in the talks. “It was made clear to the Palestinian leadership that this would be the new direction of U.S. diplomacy in the region.”

The official said that White House officials laid the groundwork for the renewal of the Arab peace initiative two weeks before Obama’s visit to Israel and the West Bank when they spoke with Palestinian negotiators in Washington.

“They were told then that this would be the focus and that it had great potential,” said the Palestinian official, who asked not to be further identified because of the sensitivity of the talks. He said Obama, Kerry, Abbas and Palestinian negotiators Mohammed Shtayeh and Saeb Erekat discussed the topic for several hours during the president’s visit to Ramallah, where the Palestinian Authority has its headquarters.

“He asked us during that time not to take any unilateral steps in the U.N. or moves that would anger Israel,” the Palestinian official said, referring to Obama. He added that it was his understanding that Israel had agreed not to announce any new settlement construction projects for eight weeks.

“Kerry asked for a quiet time to give the new diplomacy a chance,” the official said.

The Arab Peace Initiative, which also has been referred to as the “Saudi peace plan,” was first proposed in March 2002 at a meeting of the Arab League. It stipulated that Israel withdraw from areas occupied in the 1967 Middle East War – namely the Golan Heights, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip – and allow the establishment of a sovereign Palestinian state. In return, Arab nations would pledge to adopt normal relations with Israel and effectively declare the conflict over.

Ariel Sharon, then Israel’s prime minister, immediately rejected the plan. Subsequent Israeli leaders have periodically warmed to, and then rejected, the plan.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who openly opposed the plan when he was opposition leader in 2007, has since quietly voiced support for it, including in closed-door meetings with Egyptian and Jordanian officials.