Barak: Israel giving serious thought to Saudi peace plan
Defense Minister says Israel shares interests with moderate Arab elements regarding Iran, Hezbollah and Hamas.
Defense Minister and Labor Party Chairman Ehud Barak said Sunday that Israeli leaders have been discussing pursuing a comprehensive Saudi peace plan, an initiative touted by the moderate Arab elements across the Middle East.
Barak told Army Radio on Sunday that with individual negotiations with Syria and the Palestinians making little headway, it may be time to pursue an overall peace deal for the region.
"There is room in the Israeli coalition for the Saudi initiative," he said. "We have a mutual interest with moderate Arab elements on the issues of Iran, Hezbollah and Hamas."
The defense minister President Shimon Peres is in agreement with such consideration and he has spoken about the matter with Prime Minister-designate Tzipi Livni about the matter as well.
While outgoing Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, has welcomed the Saudi plan, he and other leaders want to keep small parts of the territories captured in the 1967 Six Day War.
Israel also objects to language in the Saudi plan that appears to endorse a large-scale return of Palestinian refugees to lands inside Israel. Israel says a massive influx of Palestinians would destroy the country's Jewish character.
Peres proposed merging Israel's various peace talks into one track last month at the United Nations. In a speech to the General Assembly, he called on Saudi King Abdullah to further his initiative. He has since been pushing the idea in meeting with Israeli, Arab and Western officials, his office said.
In Sunday's interview, Barak said he was in full agreement with Peres, and had discussed the peace plan with Livni as well.
"I had the impression that there is indeed an openness to explore any path, including this one," he said of his talks with Livni.
Barak said Israel had to tread lightly, though, so as not to appear to be coming from a position of patronage to the entire Arab world.
"We are one of the players and it is proper that we introduce an initiative," he said. Livni's office refused to comment on her talks with Barak.
The Saudi peace initiative was first proposed in 2002. It offers pan-Arab recognition of Israel in exchange for Israel's withdrawal from Arab lands captured in 1967.
Erekat: Plan doesn't necessarily undermine Israel-PA talks
Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat noted that pursuing the Saudi peace initiative did not necessarily undermine the direct talks between Israel and the Palestinians and he encouraged Israel to pursue this track.
"I think Israel should have done this since 2002. It is the most strategic initiative that came from the Arab world since 1948," he said. "I urge them to revisit this initiative and to go with it because it will shorten the way to peace."
Analyst Ghassan Khatib, a former minister in the Palestinian Cabinet, said that although the Israeli interest in the six-year-old plan was a little bit late the plan was still valid and offered the most promising potential way forward.
"I strongly believe that the Arab initiative is the best approach to peace between the Arabs and the Israelis," he told The Associated Press. "It fulfills all the legitimate objectives of Israel and those of the Palestinians and at the same time it has this regional dimension and it reflects one of the rare issues on which Arabs have consensus."
Yuval Steinitz, an MK from the conservative opposition Likud Party and a member of the Knesset's Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, said that for Israel the Saudi plan is a non-starter.
"It doesn't recognize Israel's right to defensible borders... [and] demands Palestinian refugees settle in the Jewish state as well as the Palestinian state, which is totally unacceptable and contradicts the essence of the two state solution," he told the AP. "That's why I am really surprised that Barak made these remarks, it was strictly an empty political gesture."
Arab foreign ministers reendorsed the proposal at an Arab League summit in Damascus in March. The ratification included the declaration that advabcement of the plans would depend on whether Israel fulfill its commitment to international agreements.
"The continuation by the Arab side to present the Arab peace initiative is tied to Israel executing its commitments in the framework of international resolutions to achieve peace in the region," a Damascus declaration said.
Arab officials have said that withdrawing the peace plan is not an option and in public they have not proposed alternatives.