'No Comment' From Israeli Officials on Reports of Saudi Talks

Officials in the Prime Minister's Bureau refused to comment yesterday on reports that Prime Minister Ehud Olmert met with a senior Saudi representative in recent weeks. Arab sources told Haaretz that Saudi Arabia's National Security Advisor, Prince Bandar bin Sultan, met with Olmert again in a follow-up to their previous meeting in Jordan about six months ago.

Meanwhile, United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon arrived yesterday for a visit to Israel and the Palestinian Authority.

Prince Bandar visited Washington last week for talks with senior American officials ahead of the Arab summit in Riyadh this Thursday and Friday. The summit is expected to reapprove the 2002 Arab peace initiative calling for normalization of relations with Israel in exchange for withdrawal from all territories, a Palestinian state and a "just solution" to the Palestinian refugee problem.

Columnist Tom Friedman wrote Friday in The New York Times that there were rumors that a senior Saudi official had met with Olmert ahead of the Riyadh summit.

Government sources in Jerusalem said they would respond after decisions were made in Riyadh. Olmert has said recently that he welcomed the "positive parts" of the Saudi initiative. Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni has expressed strong opposition to the clause on refugees, which the Palestinians interpret as a right of return. Arab leaders say they will make no changes in the initiative.

Ban arrives in Israel

Following the establishment of the Palestinian unity government, a flurry of diplomatic activity is expected in the region over the next few days, starting with the visit of Ban Ki-Moon. On his arrival from Cairo at Ben-Gurion International Airport, Ban said he saw new determination in the Arab world to restart the 2002 Saudi peace initiative. Ban and Defense Minister Amir Peretz made short statements to the press at the airport, followed by a meeting of more than an hour. Ban, who is to visit the PA today, said the UN had been there when Israel was founded and he hoped to be here again with a comprehensive solution to the conflict. He expressed the UN's support for Israel's right to peace and security and the right of the Palestinians to an independent state.

Peretz thanked Ban for the special attitude he had shown the families of the kidnapped soldiers and for his continuing efforts to bring the soldiers home. "We salute you for the fact that as UN secretary general you intend to do everything to apply Security Council Resolution 1701 as written, first and foremost the retun of the kidnapped soldiers. From our perspective this is not just a wish; this is an unequivocal demand by Israel," Peretz said.

Peretz warned that the non-enforcement of the weapons embargo on the Syria-Lebanon border, also called for in Resolution 1701, might "undermine the stability that exists today in south Lebanon."

Peretz said Israel was expecting that the next UN resolution would call for sanctions against Iran to stop its nuclearization.

In the meeting between the two leaders following the press briefing Peretz reiterated Israel's demand for sanctions on Iran and for action by the international community on weapons smuggling from Syria to Hezbollah. He asked Ban to raise the latter issue in his talks in Lebanon. The two leaders also discussed the kidnapped soldiers at length.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is due to arrive in Jerusalem this evening and will meet with Olmert. In a briefing ahead of her departure for the Middle East, Rice revealed her plan to conduct parallel talks with Israel and the Palestinians on a framework for the establishment of a Palestinian state.

Rice will meet with members of the new Palestinian unity government who are not Hamas members, especially Finance Minister Salam Fayad.