March 6, 2002 -- In 35 years of studying the Middle East, I have rarely seen anything to rival the Saudi "peace plan" for cynicism (of those pushing the plan) and gullibility (of those buying it). If it were not so tragic it would be comic. Israeli civilians are being blown up almost daily in restaurants, at bus stops, at prayer. Retaliatory attacks are launched by the hour. A new "peace plan" is then floated whose essence is this: When peace is achieved between the two parties killing each other on the ground, the Saudis will give it their blessing and make peace too. Forgive me, but this is entirely beside the point. The point is not what the Arab states will do after peace dawns -- And what would they do? Keep the war going after the Palestinians make peace? -- but to find a way to stop the violence today.

The plan is a transparent attempt to take world attention away from the source of the violence.

Apart from the fact that the plan is an obvious Saudi ploy to blunt American anger at the shockingly deep Saudi role in Sept. 11 by posing as peacemakers, apart from the fact that it gives make-work to U.N., EU and other underemployed diplomats with not an idea in their heads how to stop the violence, the plan has a very specific objective: misdirection. The plan -- a repetition of maximal Arab demands from which they have not budged in two decades -- is a transparent attempt to take world attention away from the source of the violence.

Ever since the devastating suicide bombings of Dec. 1 and 2 in Jerusalem and Haifa that murdered 25 Israelis, world attention has been on Yasser Arafat. Shortly before Dec. 1, the Bush administration had bent to Arab demands and became seriously reinvolved in brokering peace, explicitly advocating a Palestinian state and sending a special envoy, Gen. Anthony Zinni, to lead the negotiations. Zinni arrived in Jerusalem and was greeted by an orgy of Palestinian violence.

A furious and embarrassed U.S. administration then insisted that Arafat re-arrest the terrorists he had deliberately released from jail at the beginning of the intifada and crack down on the terrorist infrastructure that he had made common cause with under the umbrella of the "National and Islamic Forces.'' Even the European Union, normally a wholly owned subsidiary of the Arab League, agreed.

It is three months later and Arafat has done nothing. On the contrary. The suicide bombings are coming with increasing frequency and with ever-increasing adulation in Arafat's media and propaganda. More ambushes, more bombings, more missiles, more bloodshed.

Everyone knows that if Arafat would call a stop, Israel would reciprocate.

Everyone knows that if Arafat would call a stop, Israel would reciprocate. But for 17 months, he has refused. Why? Because he is winning. Israel is bleeding, demoralized, leaderless, economically devastated. Arafat knows that he may yet get what he wants -- unilateral withdrawal. For Arafat, such an Israeli capitulation, mirroring its capitulation in Lebanon, would be the sweetest of victories: land without peace.

He has a serious obstacle, however. American pressure. How to relieve it? Change the subject. Make the issue not the Palestinian campaign of terror but newfound Saudi peacefulness.

What is the key symbol of the U.S. pressure on Arafat? Its support of Israel's confinement of Arafat to his headquarters in Ramallah until he shuts down the terror. What then do you imagine is the newest key demand of the Saudi plan? You guessed it. On Monday, Palestinian Planning Minister Nabil Shaath, who had just met with Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah, revealed that the Saudis would refuse to present the plan to the Arab League meeting in Beirut on March 27-28 -- unless Arafat is allowed to attend.

The clouds part. The fog lifts. The peace plan turns out to be a transparent device for springing Arafat from his confinement -- without having acceded to American demands to shut down the terror. His resumption of globetrotting would publicly demonstrate his successful defiance of the American effort to stop the violence.

It would be a spectacular diplomatic victory -- a triumphal return to Beirut to a thunderous reception from his fellow Arabs -- and dramatic vindication of his policy of the last two years: rejecting Israel's Camp David 2000 peace offer, tearing up the Oslo accords, then waging terror and guerrilla war. Such success for his war policy will only increase the violence.

The audacity of this maneuver is breathtaking. But why not? It is working. The New York Times bought the Saudi peace plan (last Sunday alone, lavishing two feature stories and nearly a dozen photographs over five pages). The Europeans bought it. The diplomatic-media complex bought it. All that stands in the way of pulling this off is for the Bush administration to buy it.

Thus far and to its credit, the administration has not. It has kept its focus on stopping the killing. And for good reason. This phony plan designed to get Arafat off the hook is guaranteed to make things worse.