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Mitchell gets earful from Mideast

The din of Gaza followed Obama's Middle East envoy, George Mitchell, as he conducted a listening tour. Arab leaders wonder why their peace plan remains untouched.

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Cairo and Riyadh have blamed Iranian and Syrian-backed Hamas for its rocket attacks on Israel, which instigated Israel's attack on Gaza.

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Now, apparently emboldened by Iran's support, Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal has called for new Palestinian leadership to replace the Fatah-dominated Palestine Liberation Organization led by Mahmoud Abbas, who is favored by Egypt and Saudi Arabia.

On Saturday, King Abdullah called upon Palestinians to stop their "selfishness" and unite. "The competition between them is a big mistake," Saudi papers quoted him saying. "It will do them more harm than that done by Zionism. I appeal to them again to stand united in order to strengthen their cause."

Turki al-Sudairy, editor of Ar Riyadh newspaper, which reflects government thinking, said in a telephone interview: "Iran's meddling in Middle East affairs and the provocative acts of ... Hamas won't be stopped without a strong American stand on the peace process."

The Mitchell talks will include discussion on how to incorporate the Arab Peace Initiative into any new US approach to the conflict, according to a Saudi source.

Two weeks ago, frustrated by Israel's failure to respond positively to the initiative, King Abdullah told a gathering of Arab leaders in Kuwait that "Israel must understand that ... the Arab peace initiative that is on the table today will not remain there indefinitely."

Some Arab commentators were disappointed by President Obama's failure to unreservedly embrace the initiative. Announcing Mitchell's appointment at the State Department, the president said the plan "contains constructive elements" and urged Arab states to start "taking steps towards normalizing relations with Israel."

This was not received well by some Arab analysts, including Mouin Rabbani, in Amman, Jordan. To suggest that Arab countries should open diplomatic relations now, even before Israel accepted the Arab peace plan, was "an insult to Arab intelligence," Rabbani said in an interview.

But the Saudis have chosen not to dwell on that aspect of Obama's remarks. One source said that the Obama camp has been saying since last summer that it had "reservations" about the Arab peace plan.

Prince Saud bin Faisal told Saudi-owned Al Arabiya television station earlier this week that Arab states had "no reservations" about "respond[ing] to any questions posed by the American administration about the peace plan."

The prince's brother, former ambassador to Washington, Prince Turki al-Faisal, has been less diplomatic in recent days. In a widely noted opinion piece, published in the Financial Times, Mr. Turki wrote: "If the US wants to ... keep its strategic alliances intact – especially its 'special relationship' with Saudi Arabia, it will have to drastically revise its policies vis-à-vis Israel and Palestine."

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