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In a possible indication of budding Israeli consensus to consider a Saudi proposal aimed at a watershed Mideast peace, President Moshe Katsav departed from his apolitical role to urge serious exploration of the plan.

Katsav - along with the chairman of his Likud party, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon - has long been a savvy observer of the shifting sands of the Israeli electorate. With Sharon taking a vaguely favorable wait-and-see stance and Saudi officialdom appearing to backpeddle on the plan that has suddenly and surprisingly stolen the world spotlight, Katsav issued on Wednesday one of the strongest Israeli endorsements to date of Saudi efforts to push for a gamebreaking comprehensive peace.

Katsav suggested that the public viewed the Saudi peace incentive as one of overriding potential importance. While allowing that it had been his practice to be especially cautious in speaking out on issues of security and diplomacy, he said, "Here I am speaking strictly on matters that are matters of central principle, not fringe issues, and which are expressions of a national consensus."

Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah's initiative, first made public in a February interview with the New York Times, proposes that the Arab world would fully recognize and normalize relations with the Jewish state in exchange for a withdrawal to the borders that existed before the 1967 Six Day-War, when Israel captured the West Bank and East Jerusalem from Jordan, the Gaza Strip and the Sinai Peninsula from Egypt, and the Golan Heights from Syria.

The plan has rapidly garnered wide support in the Arab world, and has won guarded praise from traditional Mideast mediator Washington. Israel, meanwhile, has generally welcomed the Saudi initiative, but rightists have ruled out any concessions on the stipulation that the Jewish state return to the pre-war borders.

"I see very great importance in this incentive, I view this incentive very positively," Katsav said in a broadcast interview Wednesday. "The fact that there would be normalization between the Arab world and Israel - this is certainly a dramatic step, a step of importance, deserving of consideration and serious thought, and I am gladdened by the reactions of additional Israeli figures in government."

Although Israel has no formal relations with Saudi Arabia, Katsav has issued a public invitation to Abdullah to meet him, whether in Jerusalem, Riyadh, or elsewhere.

Asked if he had he had shifted his approach from traditionally right-leaning Likud ideology, Katsav said that his views had not changed, but that he was "President of all the citizens, all the social strata, all sectors. If I find that there is a national consensus on political subjects I allow myself to give public expression to these views."

Elected over Labor's dovish Shimon Peres in a smashing upset vote in the Knesset, Katsav's moves of late have suggested steps that Peres - now Sharon's foreign minister - might himself have taken as president. In December, Katsav offered to go to Ramallah to speak to the Palestinian parliament in a plea for peace, if the move was approved by the Cabinet. But Sharon vetoed the concept, and Katsav remained at home.

Katsav suggested that the public viewed the Saudi peace incentive as one of overriding potential importance. While allowing that it had been his practice to be especially cautious in speaking out on issues of security and diplomacy, he said "Here I am speaking strictly on matters that are matters of central principle, not fringe issues, and which are expressions of a national consensus."

He turned aside the contentions of a Israeli rightists who suggested that the real purpose of the plan was not to forge a lasting peace, but rather to curry favor with American public opinion, which has viewed Saudi Arabia with suspicion since the September 11 attacks, in which many of the hijackers were Saudi nationals. "We cannot afford to reject out of hand an overture, a incentive so dramatic, a step of such importance merely because of suspicion or because of imputing negative intentions to the Saudis," he said.

Katsav, acknowledging that he was departing from his formally apolitical role, said he was opposed to a full Israeli withdrawal to the 1967 lines. "However, opening positions are opening positions," he added. "Bargaining and negotiations begin with opening positions, and then (the sides) compromise."

"All Israeli governments, include the present one, have declared their willingness to make far-reaching, painful concessions to reach peace agreements with Arab nations. These issues can only be clarified in negotiations, in serious meetings between the sides."

Ha'aretzcommentator Zvi Barel cautions that "The faster the initiative of Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah gathers momentum, so grow the doubts about the substantive questions that his proposal does not answer. On the positive side, the initiative opens a horizon that Israel has always sought: not only recognition of its existence and right to live in peace - as the Fahd plan proposed in 1981 - but full normalization. That is a strategic change in the Arab line and a new foundation in the official Arab position - if the initiative is approved by the Arab League summit in Beirut next month.

"On the other hand," Barel continues, "the initiative needs some more clarification, especially from other Arab countries. For example, it refers to Israel withdrawing from all the occupied territory, but makes no mention of the refugees. Without some form of solution to the refugee problem, Lebanon won't be able to accept the initiative because Beirut's main interest in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is how to get rid of 300,000 Palestinian refugees living in Lebanon. And if Lebanon doesn't accept the initiative, Syria will not be able to accept it, so it will have a hard time getting through a summit where unanimity is required."

In any event, "It's possible that nothing will come out of diplomatic negotiations, it's possible that the terms will be impossible to bridge," Katsav concluded Wednesday. "But no public official in Israel is exempt from the obligation of concern and responsibility of working for a cease-fire, each in his own way."