Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas called on Arab leaders assembled at a Damascus summit Saturday to send peacekeeping troops to the Palestinian territories, as Arab leaders debated the future of a 2002 peace initiative.

Abbas spoke at the opening of a deeply divided annual Arab League summit that leaders of the U.S.'s top allies boycotted to protest Syria's hard-line stances in nearly every crisis in the Middle East.

Abbas has called in the past for international peacekeepers in the Gaza Strip. But his call Saturday at an Arab summit in Damascus is the first time he has urged Arab countries to send forces.

He asked Arab countries to "think seriously of Arab and international protection for our people."

Abbas took a sharply pessimistic tone over Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations launched in November. "The coming couple of months are decisive. If we don't reach a solution by the end of this year, it means the whole region will be on the verge of a new era of tension and loss of confidence in peace," Abbas said.

He blasted in particular Israeli settlement expansion and recent Israeli military assaults in the Gaza Strip aimed at stopping Qassam rocket fire on Israeli towns.

"It has become clear that the Israeli government is imposing on the ground the political solution that it wants," Abbas said. "Negotiations cannot continue under the Israeli bulldozers swallowing our land and building settlements and under the daily Israeli military operations."

"The parameters and plans of the solution that Israel is drawing on the ground would not leave more than a group of isolated enclaves of land torn apart by settlements and the wall of racial separation," Abbas continued.

"Jerusalem ... is facing the most vicious settlement campaign which is aimed at its Arab character through confiscation of lands, building settlements and destroying houses of [Arab] residents with the aim of isolating Jerusalem from the rest of the Palestinian lands," he added.

Arab leaders debate future of 2002 peace initiative

At Saturday's summit, Syrian President Bashar Assad questioned how long Arab nations can keep offering Israel a land-for-peace proposal, while the Arab League chief called for a meeting later this year to evaluate negotiations with Israel.

In his opening speech to the summit, Assad said peace was the only way for Israel to gain security in the region, and "peace will not come except through withdrawal from occupied Arab land and giving back (Arab) rights."

He warned that Arab countries may have to seek alternatives to a 2002 Arab peace plan if Israel continues to refuse to accept it. The proposal offers Israel full peace with Arab nations if it withdraws from Arab lands and allows the creation of a Palestinian state.

"The question is: Do we leave the peace process and initiatives hostage to the whims of successive Israeli governments, or do we search for choices and substitutes that can achieve a just and comprehensive peace?" Assad said.

Arab League Secretary-General Amr Moussa proposed that Arab foreign ministers meet in mid-2008 to evaluate the Israeli-Arab peace process.

"We must know in which direction we are moving," Moussa said. "If there is progress, we will welcome it. If there is not, then Arabs may have to take painful positions."

"No one will blame us for a decisive position we will take," he said. "What have we achieved? So far, nothing ... Things are not reassuring."

Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi called for a one-state solution to the conflict, Israel Radio reported, saying Israelis and Palestinians should live together in a single, democratic state.

Syria has been pushing Arab countries to set a time limit for Israel to accept the Arab peace initiative, which was first formulated by Saudi Arabia then approved by all Arab countries in 2002. But so far the summit has resisted doing so.

Damascus has billed the summit as an opportunity for Arab nations to take a strong united stance on the Israel-Palestinian issue. Instead, the region's powerhouses have shunned the Syrian-hosted gathering.

The summit has only solidified the region's rift between Syria and pro-U.S. countries. U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was headed to the Mideast on Saturday for talks with Israeli and Arab leaders.

Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Jordan sent only low-level officials to the two-day gathering in a snub to the Syrian hosts. Lebanon boycotted the summit completely, sending no delegation.

The countries blame Syria for blocking the election of a new president in Lebanon for months, prolonging its unending political crisis. Washington and its Arab allies are also opposed to Syria's strong alliances with Iran and the Palestinian Hamas and Lebanese Hezbollah militant groups.

In all, 10 heads of state from the Arab League's 22 members are not attending the Damascus gathering - Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, Yemen, Iraq, Bahrain, Oman, Morocco and Somalia.

In his speech, Assad denied that Syria was interfering in Lebanon. "The key to a solution is in the hands of the Lebanese. They have their country, constitution and institutions," he said. "Any other (outside) role is to give assistance, not be a substitute."

Saudi Arabia urges Arab League to punish Syria

Saudi Arabia's foreign minister slammed Syria for obstructing Lebanese peace efforts and called on the Arab League Saturday to punish member states that don't honor the group's consensus decisions.

In a press conference broadcast live on some TVs during the Arab League summit's opening session in Damascus, Prince Faisal said from Riyadh that the kingdom has never boycotted a summit before.

He blamed his boycott on Syria, and implicitly blasted the country for worsening most of the crisis in the Middle East, especially in Lebanon. "Syria is a country that is crucial to joint Arab efforts," Faisal said.

He blamed Damascus for not abiding by an Arab consensus over how to solve the lingering presidential crisis in Lebanon. "The problem is that what had been agreed by consensus in the Arab League, including by Syria, wasn't implemented in reality," he said.

Faisal called for the Arab League to punish member states that breach a common resolution. "The absence of credibility and seriousness in implementing [agreements] should be confronted... call it punishment or countermeasures," he said.

In another clear allusion to Syrian meddling in the Mideast, he warned Damascus against hindering Palestinian-Israeli peace efforts and further worsening the situation in Iraq.

"Attempts to hinder the [Arab] initiative in Lebanon are clearly the same attempts [as those] that deepened the Palestinian rift, hindered the political solution in Iraq and Arab issues in general," he said.