Arabs unite at summit to renew peace offer to Israel

Posted in Broader Middle East , Israel / Palestine | 29-Mar-07 | Author: Ian Black| Source: International Herald Tribune

(L-R) Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas, Saudi King Abdullah and Palestinian prime minister Ismail Haniya (R) are seen in Riyadh.

Arab leaders closed ranks to appeal to Israel yesterday to overcome its long-standing reservations and accept a landmark offer that could lead to a breakthrough in the Middle East peace process.

Saudi Arabia, abandoning its customary reticence to host its first Arab League summit for 30 years, bridged its quarrels with Syria and persuaded the Palestinian Islamists of Hamas to stay on side as it sought endorsement for a land-for-peace deal that would require Israel to return to its pre-1967 borders.

"If Israel refuses that means it doesn't want peace," said the Saudi foreign minister, Saud al-Faisal.

"Then the conflict goes back into the hands of the lords of war," he warned, as the two-day summit opened in Riyadh.

The Arab offer of recognition and peace was first made in 2002 but was ignored by the west and Israel at the height of the second intifada and was then overshadowed by the Iraq war. Israel has welcomed aspects of the plan but is unhappy with what it says about Palestinian refugees - a central if largely symbolic issue - as well as the unambiguous call for the surrender of all occupied territories. Existing UN resolutions are ambiguous on that point and land swaps have been mooted before.

Amr Musa, the Egyptian secretary general of the 22-member league, stuck to the take-it-or-leave-it approach. "Israel says change the plan first," he said. "We say to them, accept it first and come to the negotiating table."

The plan's revival represents the broadest possible Arab support for a permanent accommodation with Israel. Today's final declaration is expected to appeal directly to "the Israeli government and people".

But it will be up to the international community to create a mechanism for new negotiations. Arab League working groups are expected to hold talks with the quartet of Middle East peacemakers next month, and only later with Israelis and Palestinians, diplomats said.

Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian president, said: "This initiative simply says to Israel: leave the occupied territories and you will live in a sea of peace that begins in Nouakchott and ends in Indonesia," - referring to the capital of Mauritania and the world's most populous Muslim country. "If this initiative is destroyed I don't believe there will be another opportunity in the future like this."

These cautious hopes were not matched elsewhere. The summit has no chance of breaking the political deadlock in Lebanon, and nor is it likely to go beyond platitudes about Darfur and Somalia. But the event symbolises the kingdom's return to an active Middle Eastern role. Last month King Abdullah brokered the Mecca agreement between Mr Abbas and Hamas, paving the way for the creation of a Palestinian unity government.