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Monday, April 02, 2007

Saudi Arabia Can Take A Lead For All Arabs

Responding to an Arab peace initiative, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert on Sunday invited Arab leaders to meet with him, saying he is prepared to talk to moderate Arab states about ways to resolve the Arab- Israeli conflict.

"I invite to a meeting all the Arab heads of state, including, of course, the Saudi king, whom I regard as a very important leader, to have a dialogue with us," Olmert said.

He added: "If the king of Saudi Arabia will initiate a meeting of the moderate Arab states and invite me along with the head of the Palestinian Authority in order to present Saudi Arabia's ideas to us, we will come to hear them, and we will be glad to also offer our ideas."

The overture by Olmert followed last week's Arab League summit in Riyadh that renewed a 2002 peace initiative first proposed by the Saudis. It offers Israel recognition and normal relations in return for an Israeli withdrawal from all territories captured in the 1967 Middle East war, establishment of a Palestinian state and a "just solution" for Palestinian refugees displaced when Israel was established.

Olmert's remarks during a news conference with visiting German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who is the president of the European Union, came amid a flurry of international efforts to renew peace talks, including a visit here last week by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.

The United States is eager to show movement in resolving the Middle East conflict in order to enlist the support of pro-Western Arab states in efforts to stabilize Iraq and counter the growing influence of Iran in the region. Olmert's call added to the sense of renewed momentum.

Israeli leaders have called for peace talks with their neighbors in the past, and it was not immediately clear whether Olmert's sweeping invitation meant he had dropped his objection to peace talks with Syria or with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, whose Fatah party has formed a coalition government with the militant Hamas faction.

But it was the first time that Israel had called on Saudi Arabia, which has assumed a more prominent role in regional diplomacy, to take the lead. Talks with pro-Western Arab states such as Saudi Arabia could provide both Olmert and Washington with a way to bypass blocked negotiation channels with the Palestinians and Syria, while building broader support for a regional peace deal.

It was unclear whether the Saudis or others would be prepared to sit down with the Israelis without tangible progress toward a settlement of the conflict with the Palestinians, a condition Arab leaders have set in the past.

Olmert has ruled out peace talks with Abbas, saying that the Palestinian leader is hamstrung by his party's alliance in a government with Hamas, which refuses to recognize Israel or renounce violence.

During Rice's visit last week, Olmert balked at starting talks with Abbas on the core issues of a final peace deal: borders, refugees and the fate of Jerusalem. Instead Rice emerged with an agreement by the leaders to talk twice monthly about day-to-day issues and a vaguely defined "political horizon."

But a sense of threat from Iran that is shared by Israel and Washington's allies in the Middle East appears to be driving the renewal of the Saudi-led peace initiative and Olmert's praise for it, repeated Sunday.

"I think this new way of thinking, the willingness to recognize Israel as an established fact and to debate the conditions of a future solution is a step that I can't help but appreciate," Olmert said.

While welcoming the initiative, Olmert said that Israel does not accept all parts of the plan. Israel has consistently objected to a full withdrawal to the 1967 lines, or to any return of Palestinian refugees to their former lands in Israel, a step the Israelis say could undermine the Jewish character of their state.

The Riyadh summit decided to form "working groups" to pursue its initiative with the U.S. , the United Nations and the European Union, and it called on Israel to accept the plan and resume negotiations.

Merkel said Europe should build on the plan and revive diplomatic efforts to restart peace talks.

"We all have a feeling that things are moving," Merkel said at The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, where she received an honorary doctorate. "We have a window of opportunity. There is a major chance here that we must grasp."

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