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Monday, 25 February, 2002, 15:57 GMT
Israeli president seeks Saudi talks
Israeli tanks on Golan Heights
The plan foresees a full Israeli withdrawal
The Israeli President, Moshe Katsav, has said he is willing to travel to Saudi Arabia to discuss a new peace plan put forward by Crown Prince Abdullah.

Alternatively, a statement by Mr Katsav's office said, the crown prince could come to Jerusalem for talks with the Israeli Government.


I very much hope that if a Saudi ruler will not come to Jerusalem, he will invite the rulers of Israel to Saudi Arabia - we would be happy to go to him

President Moshe Katsav
Under the plan, Arab states would normalise relations with Israel in return for Israel's full withdrawal from the Arab land it has occupied since 1967.

Earlier, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon was said to have asked the United States to help set up a meeting with Saudi officials to discuss the plan, although differences on the terms involved are already clear.

Israeli President Moshe Katsav
Katsav: Seeking to bridge the gap

The Saudi crown prince's plan was reported by the New York Times earlier in February.

The statement by Mr Katsav's office said the president took a "positive view" although details would have to be worked out with the Israeli Government.

The BBC's Nick Childs in Jerusalem says that Crown Prince Abdullah is unlikely to take up the Israeli president's offer but in the present climate of Middle East pessimism any peace initiative is welcomed by diplomats.

Borders

One Saudi pro-government newspaper, al-Watan, quoted Arab and European diplomats as saying the peace plan has the backing of most Arab states.

Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah
Crown Prince Abdullah: diplomatic ties with Israel possible
It added that the plan may be placed on the agenda of the summit of Arab leaders in Lebanon in March.

A Saudi foreign policy adviser, Adel al-Jubeir, publicly confirmed the plan on Sunday, saying it sent a message of hope:

"The importance of it is that it sends a signal to the Israeli public by telling them that peace with the broader Arab world is possible should they make peace with their neighbours.

But he added that any talks would have to take place without a cease-fire - one of Mr Sharon's key conditions for peace talks with the Palestinians.

While Foreign Minister Shimon Peres publicly welcomed the plan as "new, interesting and fascinating", Cabinet Secretary Gideon Saar ruled out reverting to Israel's old borders.

"It must be said that we're speaking of a positive trend," Mr Saar said, but "this does not mean that we agree to the demand for a return to the 1967 borders - it's clear that we won't agree to this."

Arafat issue

There has also been friction previously between Mr Sharon and both the Israeli president and his own foreign minister over peace initiatives.

The United States, Israel's main ally, expressed caution about the Saudi initiative, insisting that Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat must move first to make peace with Israel.

It was down to Mr Arafat to "take concrete steps to dismantle the groups that perpetrate violence and to end the violence", said US State Department spokesman Richard Boucher.

In Saudi Arabia itself, strong anti-Israeli sentiments were voiced last week during the annual pilgrimage to Mecca.

The country's grand mufti, Sheikh Abdul Aziz al-Sheikh, accused Israel in a sermon of killing unarmed Palestinians.

 WATCH/LISTEN
 ON THIS STORY
The BBC's Nick Hawton
"Arafat said he completely supported the Saudi plan"
The BBC's James Reynolds in Jerusalem
"We only have a rough outline of the crown prince's ideas"
See also:

02 Jan 02 | Middle East
Sharon veto sparks row with president
15 Nov 01 | Media reports
Israeli president's letter to Palestinians
01 Aug 00 | Middle East
Katsav sworn in amid controversy
31 Jul 00 | Middle East
Moshe Katsav: Low-profile president
22 Feb 02 | Middle East
Saudi cleric blasts Israel
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