Arab leaders rule out amending Saudi proposal
Saudi FM: First accept proposal, then talk about conditions; Saudis praise EU for response to Mecca deal.
With Israeli leaders showing renewed interest in a regional peace plan, heavyweight Arab countries said Tuesday the land-for-peace offer should not be changed during an Arab summit in Saudi Arabia later this month.
Last week, the Arab League said it would relaunch the 2002 initiative in an effort to end the decades-long conflict with Israel. But Arab leaders said the peace deal would not include changes Israel has been pushing for.
Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni has said that Israel would not accept the Arab peace plan as it is, but would ask that any reference be dropped on the issue of the right of the Palestinians displaced in the 1948 War of Independence to return to their homes inside Israel. On Sunday, Prime Minster Ehud Olmert told his Cabinet he was prepared to treat the Saudi proposal seriously.
Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Syria on Tuesday explained their reasons for turning down Israel's request to amend the proposal.
"We have the Arab peace plan and we are committed to it as a whole. Talk about amending it is baseless," Syrian Vice President Farouk al-Sharaa said Tuesday after meeting with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. "What we want is returning all the occupied land including Jerusalem."
Mubarak's spokesman Suleiman Awwad said Egypt also rejects the Israeli demands for amending the plan.
"Israel cannot pick and choose from the initiative and then jump into establishing normal relations with Arabs," Awwad said. "The Arab plan offers full withdrawal for full peace."
"We have no desire to negotiate over this," said Saudi foreign minister, Saud Al-Faisal. "They accept the resolution and then they talk about putting preconditions that should be accepted before negotiations or discussions or even the acceptance of the proposal. This is not a good way to do business.
The initiative is a set of principles that would offer Israel full recognition and permanent peace with the Arab states in return for Israel's withdrawal to 1967 lines, the establishment of an independent Palestine with East Jerusalem as its capital and an agreed, just solution to the issue of Palestinian refugees in accordance with UN General Assembly Resolution 194 of 1948.
"There will be no retreat, and no change to the Arab initiative, because the Palestinian people have got rights, detailed in the initiative ... such rights must be protected," Egypt's Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit said.
Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni is expected to discuss the initiative during her meeting Wednesday in Washington with Rice, who is scheduled to fly to the region next week in a fresh bid to revive efforts by the Quartet of Mideast peace negotiators - the U.S., EU, U.N. and Russia - to try to jump-start the Palestinian-Israeli peace talks.
Aboul Gheit said that Rice will meet with foreign ministries of Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates on March 25 in Aswan, southern Egypt. He also said that she will back to the region in April.
Saudis slam Israel over peace talk preconditions Saudi Arabia criticized Israel on Tuesday for setting preconditions to Middle East peace talks and urged it to accept the Arab initiative first and discuss details later.
"We only hear of conditions from Israel about everything, but no acceptance. You cannot have negotiations like that, you accept the proposals then you talk about this," al-Faisal said.
"This seems a ludicrous way of doing business," he said at a news conference with visiting European Union foreign policy chief Javier Solana.
A 2002 Arab League summit in Beirut adopted a Saudi initiative offering Israel normal ties with Arab countries in return for full withdrawal from land it occupied in the 1967 Middle East war.
On Sunday, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert appeared to open the door to exploring whether the Saudi plan could aid the quest for an Israeli-Palestinian settlement. The initiative, he said, "is a subject we would be willing to treat seriously."
But Israel has said it cannot accept some terms in the proposal, including the total withdrawal from territory captured in the 1967 Six Day War and the return of Palestinian refugees to Israel.
Diplomats in Riyadh, which hosted Palestinian crisis talks in the holy city of Mecca last month, speculate that Saudi Arabia wants to revive the initiative.
The Mecca meeting led to a unity government deal between Islamist group Hamas and Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas's Fatah faction, and ended fighting between the two groups.
Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh, who belongs to Hamas, said on Saturday he and Abbas would travel to Saudi Arabia after the government is formed for a summit to revive the plan.
Prince Saud praised the EU for welcoming the Mecca deal. "We look forward to the (EU) support ... for the Palestinian government," he said.
Solana said the EU would grant more aid to the Palestinians this year than in 2006. Israel has been withholding tax revenues the Palestinian Authority uses to pay government staff since Hamas won parliamentary elections in January 2006.
Meanwhile, a Hamas source said Tuesday that part of the $100 million in tax revenues transferred by Israel to Abbas went to pay security services, including members of a Hamas-led force.
Western powers have also frozen direct aid to the Hamas-led government.
"We will not let the Palestinian people down," Solana said.
Lebanon crisis Prince Saud hinted little progress had been made in ending a rift between the Lebanese government and opposition parties, led by the Shi'ite Muslim Hezbollah, after a rare visit to Riyadh by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad earlier this month.
Hezbollah is backed by Syria and Iran, while Saudi Arabia, the United States and France support the government.
"We hope that Iran, whatever influence it has over some of the factions in Lebanon, will work for normaliztion so that negotiations can be carried out between protagonists, without feeling they have a gun pointed at their heads," he said.
Solana said he would discuss with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in Damascus on Wednesday how to improve the situation in Lebanon.
He said the next meeting of the Quartet of Middle East peace brokers - the United States, European Union, Russia and the United Nations -- would be held in the region with Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabi and the United Arab Emirates also attending.
Diplomatic sources say the meeting will be held in Egypt in the second half of April.