Olmert Invites Arab Leaders to Join Regional Peace Summit

In interview with Time magazine, PM says 'If I were to meet Saudi King, he'd be surprised at what I'd say.'

Prime Minister Ehud Olmert on Sunday invited Arab leaders to a regional peace conference, saying that he would look there for an exchange of views about solving the Mideast conflict.

Speaking at a joint news conference with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who is the current head of the European Union, he said, "I would even take advantage of this important opportunity to be with the EU president to invite all Arab heads of state, including the king of Saudi Arabia, to a meeting."

"I think the readiness to accept Israel as a fact and to debate the terms of a future solution is a step that I cannot help but appreciate," Olmert added.

The United States and Egypt have proposed that Israel agree to quickly start talks with a committee of Arab states on how to move the peace process forward, diplomats involved in the matter said on Sunday.

While generally welcoming the peace initiative endorsed by Arab leaders at a summit last week in Saudi Arabia, Israel has called several key components problematic and has been noncommital about how to proceed.

In weekend talks with Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and other officials, Washington and Cairo proposed that Israel agree to take part "as soon as possible" in a meeting with a working group approved by the Arab summit that could begin negotiating a possible agreement.

"Arab League countries would talk formally and publicly as a collective with Israel," one diplomat said, calling the effort unprecedented in its potential scope. Talks in the past have generally been on a bilateral basis, the diplomat said.

U.S. and Egyptian diplomats were not immediately available to comment.

Abbas calls on Israel to respond to Arab offerPalestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas on Sunday called on Israel to take constructive steps in response to a new Arab peace initiative.

"I call on the Israeli government to take constructive steps to answer the peace initiative put forward by Arab countries," Abbas said at a news conference with visiting German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

At the summit, Arab leaders revived a 5-year-old peace plan that offers Israel normal ties with all Arab countries in return for withdrawal from land seized in the 1967 Six-Day War, creation of a Palestinian state and a "just solution" for Palestinians displaced in 1948 with Israel's creation.

Arab leaders agreed to set up a committee to follow up on the peace proposal in talks with the United Nations, the Quartet of Middle East mediators and other "international parties"..

But Israel opposes giving Palestinian refugees the right of return to their former homes in Israel, and it wants to hold onto some of the major settlement blocs in the West Bank.

Livni on Sunday said that Israel seeks to promote dialogue with moderate Arab states in order to "seek peace and normalization" in the Middle East.

"We would like to promote any dialogue with them in order to seek peace and normalization between Israel and these states," Livni said.

She said she spoke over the weekend with Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit but offered no details.

Senior American diplomats also spoke over the weekend with Livni's aides and urged Israel to take up the Arab offer to quickly start talking with the working group.

Initially, Israel may hold joint talk with at least Egypt and Jordan, and possibly other countries, but not Saudi Arabia, the diplomats said.

The United Nations has raised the idea of holding an expanded meeting of the Quartet of Middle East mediators that would include Israeli and Saudi leaders, but the Saudis balked at a public meeting, the diplomats said.

'If I were to meet Saudi King, he'd be surprised at what I'd say'In an interview with Time magazine last week, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said, "I can tell you that if I'd had an opportunity to meet with King Abdullah of the Saudis - which I have not - he would be very surprised to hear what I have to say.

"I look very favorably at the active role Saudis are now playing in the Middle East for many years," Olmert added, calling the Saudi peace initiative "a very interesting approach."

When pressed by interviewer Joe Klein to elaborate on what would surprise Abdullah, Olmert responded coyly, "If he reads about it in Time, he wouldn't be surprised."

The comment is the closest Olmert has ever come to calling for a dialogue with Saudi Arabia. Olmert seeks to participate in a regional summit - to include the Saudis - which would sponsor negotiations between Israel and Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas. The prime minister wants a dramatic event that would simultaneously signal a diplomatic breakthrough and improve his domestic standing.

The latest Peace Index survey, conducted by the Tami Steinmetz Center for Peace Research and the Evens Program in Mediation and Conflict Resolution at Tel Aviv University, points to support within Israel for talks toward a regional peace agreement based on the Saudi initiative but questions the ability of Olmert's government to conduct such negotiations. The survey will be published this week in Haaretz.

Among those respondents who had heard about the Saudi proposal (62 percent of the Israeli public), 56 percent are in favor of responding to the initiative, while 38 percent are opposed. Among those who had not heard of the plan, 42 percent supported an Israeli response and 48 percent objected. However, 72 percent of respondents believe that the Olmert government does not have the public support required to negotiate over a final status agreement.

In the Time interview, Olmert called PA Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh a "terrorist" and said he recently "transferred over a million dollars for a group of terrorists to carry out terrorist actions against Israeli citizens."

The four-member security committee consisting of Israel, the PA, Egypt and the U.S. met in Cairo Thursday for the first time in a long time. Topping the agenda was the operation of the Rafah border crossing.

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