Friday, March 30, 2007

Arab leaders urge Israel to take peace offer

Arab leaders urge Israel to take peace offer
By Wafa Amr and Andrew Hammond

RIYADH (Reuters) - Arab leaders on Thursday endorsed a 5-year-old peace plan to end conflict with Israel, and the Israeli prime minister said he saw a "revolutionary change" in the Arab world.

The endorsement at a two-day Arab summit came amid a U.S. push to restart the Middle East peace process, and Washington described it as "very positive".

The Palestinian president warned of more violence if the "hand of peace" was rejected and the prime minister of Israel, which turned down the plan in 2002, described the summit as "a serious affair".

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said Saudi Arabia, which hosted the summit, was the Arab country that would "eventually determine the Arabs' ability to reach a compromise with Israel", Israeli media quoted him as saying.

"This process has brought the influential countries in the Arab world to begin to realize that Israel is not the biggest of all their troubles. This is a revolutionary change in their perception."

Speaking at the end of the summit, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas urged Israel not to waste the chance for peace.

"I reiterate the sincerity of the Palestinian will in extending the hand of peace to the Israeli people ... We should not waste more chances in the history of this long and painful cause," Abbas told the closing ceremony in Riyadh.

The plan, endorsed in a general communique read at the end of the summit, offers Israel normal ties with Arab states in return for withdrawal from land seized in the 1967 war and the creation of a Palestinian state.

The summit also agreed to set up an Arab committee to follow up the initiative, headed by Saudi Arabia.

"The willingness of the Saudis to lead, to intervene is certainly interesting," Olmert said.

State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said the Arabs should use the plan "as a point of active diplomacy and as a way of energizing the push for peace in the Middle East".


Rejected by Israel when it was originally proposed at a Beirut summit in 2002, the plan faces important hurdles.

Israel objects to key points, including a return to 1967 borders, the inclusion of Arab East Jerusalem in a Palestinian state and the potential return of Palestinian refugees to what is now Israel.

But Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal said Israel was subjecting "not only the region but itself to dangers with unpredictable repercussions" if it ignored peace offers.

The summit came against a tense regional backdrop, amid a standoff between Iran and the west over Tehran's nuclear program.

The United States and other western countries accuse Iran of using its nuclear program, which Tehran says is designed only to produce electricity, as a cover for making nuclear bombs.

The summit warned of the danger of a nuclear arms race in the region, though it also stressed the right of every country to possess nuclear energy for peaceful uses.

(Additional reporting by Souhail Karam)