Saudi Arabia's foreign minister said tonight that he was "very much encouraged" by fresh statements from the Bush administration on reviving the quest for Middle East peace.
The words of support marked an important shift from just two weeks ago, when the foreign minister, Prince Saud al-Faisal, described himself as "angrily frustrated" by the administration's failure to propose a new peace initiative. Tonight he held out hope for progress that might help to soothe anti-American feelings in Saudi Arabia and other Arab countries that he said had made for a fertile environment for terrorism.
"The terrorists want the injustice to be perpetrated so they have something with which to propagandize about their activity," Prince Saud said in an interview at his home in the Saudi capital. "But it is time that action be taken in the Middle East to bring the peace process to fruition."
In drawing a link between Middle East peace and terrorism Prince Saud seemed determined to keep up in public what had earlier been private warnings to Washington not to lose sight of the danger that violence ignited by the continuing Israeli-Palestinian conflict would spread far beyond Israel and the Palestinian territories.
"Undoubtedly, the sore that festers in the Middle East, that taints every aspect of life in the Middle East, is the continuing conflict between Israel and the Palestinians," Prince Saud said. He said he regarded Bush's speech to the UN Nov. 10 and a follow-up address on Monday by US Secretary of State Colin Powell as a welcome sign of new US resolve.
"We believe this is the beginning of putting back the peace process on its rails," he said, "and we hope that the dynamic that was achieved by these statements will propel us toward a speedy negotiation, not only on the Palestinian issue but also on the Syrian and Lebanese track, because there is a very clear position taken by the Arab countries that they want to achieve peace."
The comments were the first public Saudi reaction to the new American initiative, in which Secretary Powell has promised to send a retired Marine general, Anthony Zinni, as his special envoy to the region. American officials have said that Saudi complaints about a perceived pro-Israel bias, spelled out most frankly in a letter this summer from Crown Prince Abdullah to President Bush, had helped to push the administration toward a more active role, in which Bush has in recent weeks expressed support for a Palestinian state and become the first American president to refer publicly to "Palestine."
Prince Saud made clear that he wished that Bush had met in New York with Yasir Arafat, the Palestinian leader, instead of declining to even acknowledge him at a UN luncheon.
"It is only fair to meet with both sides," Prince Saud said. "But this is our view, and the United States has the right to see who it wants to see." He added, however, that a perception of American bias in the region had contributed to popular anger.
"Remember, 10 years ago people in Saudi Arabia was naming their sons for Bush, the president," he said. "And 90 percent of the people supported the American presence.
"What change happened from then to now? It is because of what they see daily on their screens about the attacks of the Israelis, and they associate this with the participation of the United States, and probably what they see as bias in favor of Israel, and this has caused the erosion of public opinion in Saudi Arabia toward the US."
In conversations here, many Saudis have in fact pointed instead to the presence of some 5,000 American troops in the kingdom as the main reason for anti-American resentment. That presence, in a kingdom that is home to Islam's two most important cites, has been cited repeatedly by Osama bin Laden, whose Saudi citizenship was revoked in 1994, and by some militant Saudi clerics as the main justification in their calls for a holy war against the US and its Saudi allies.
But Prince Saud said the concerns about American troops would be greatly diminished were it not for concerns about the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians. And while not specifically endorsing the conclusion of American investigators that 15 of the 19 hijackers in the Sept. 11 attacks were Saudis, he said he believed that those who planned the attacks had deliberately enlisted a large number of Saudis to "drive a wedge between Saudi Arabia and the United States."
"This was their intention," he said, "to make it seem that Saudis were responsible for this act, and therefore that Saudi Arabia is not a friendly country to the United States, and therefore to convince the Saudis that they should be part and parcel of some kind of struggle against the United States."
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