Saudi FM Slams Israel on Peace Plan Terms

Saudi Arabia criticized Israel yesterday for setting preconditions for Middle East peace talks and urged it to accept an Arab initiative proposed in 2002 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," Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal said at a news conference with visiting European Union foreign policy chief Javier Solana. "This seems a ludicrous way of doing business."

Egypt and Syria also rejected Israel's demand that changes be made to the initiative during an Arab summit in Saudi Arabia scheduled for March 28-29.

"We have the Arab peace plan and we are committed to it as a whole. Talk of amending it is baseless," Syrian Vice President Farouk Shara said yesterday after meeting with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.

Mubarak's spokesman, Suleiman Awwad, agreed. "Israel cannot pick and choose from the initiative and then jump into establishing normal relations with Arabs," he said.

The 2002 Arab League summit in Beirut adopted a Saudi initiative offering Israel normal ties with Arab countries in return for full withdrawal from all land captured in the 1967 Six-Day War plus a solution to the refugee problem based on United Nations General Assembly Resolution 194, which the Arabs interpret as allowing Palestinian refugees and their descendants to relocate to Israel.

While Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said Sunday that the initiative "is a subject we would be willing to treat seriously," Israel has said it cannot accept some elements of the proposal, including full withdrawal to the pre-1967 lines and the "right of return" for Palestinian refugees.

The Arab League announced last week that it plans to relaunch the initiative at the upcoming summit, and diplomats in Riyadh speculated that Saudi Arabia has been pushing to revive it. Palestinian Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh said on Saturday that after he and Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas finish forming a unity government, they will travel to Saudi Arabia for talks on reviving the plan.

Rice: Plan lends Abbas support

U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who is scheduled to fly to the region next week, has indicated that she sees the Saudi plan as a way to lend important Arab support to Abbas in his internal battle against Haniyeh's hardline Hamas faction. Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni is expected to discuss the initiative during her meeting with Rice today in Washington.

Last week, Saudi media reported that Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad offered support for the initiative during talks with Saudi officials. Iran later denied the reports.

Housing Minister Meir Sheetrit (Kadima) yesterday urged Israel to accept the initiative as a basis for negotiations. "I want the Saudi outline, of peace between Israel and the Arab countries, and I call for dialogue over the details," he said at a meeting with a delegation from the Jewish American Committee.

"I object to some of the initiative's demands, but I call for dialogue on this basis," Sheetrit continued. "The refugees will not return to Israel; 200,000 [Israeli] residents will not be uprooted. It is possible to conduct territorial exchanges. We will not give up the Old City of Jerusalem, and they know this very well. We and they know how it will end, and it's a pity to have additional years of bloodshed."

Sheetrit said that back in 2002, he urged then prime minister Ariel Sharon to invite the Saudis to Israel to discuss the initiative, but Sharon refused. He made the same suggestion to Olmert a few months ago, he added, but Olmert also refused.

Solana announced in Riyadh yesterday that the next meeting of the Quartet of Middle East peace brokers - comprising the United States, European Union, Russia and the United Nations - would be held in the region, with Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates also attending. Diplomatic sources said the meeting would be held in Egypt in the second half of April.

Solana also said that the EU would grant more aid to the Palestinians this year than in 2006