Israel shows new openness to Saudi peace plan

In Jordan, the Israeli prime minister said he was ready to discuss the Arab Peace Initiative with Mideast neighbors

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert expressed increased interest Tuesday in discussing a Saudi-authored initiative for reaching a comprehensive Middle East peace, inviting the leaders of Arab countries to come to Israel to talk more seriously about the proposal and alternatively offering his own willingness to meet them in any of theirs.

Mr. Olmert's statement of openness to the multinational Arab initiative came in response to pointed questions posed by author Elie Wiesel at a conference in Petra, Jordan, aimed at bringing together Nobel Prize winners and young peace activists in search of new salutations to the region's troubles. And although the meeting, now in its third year, is not usually not a headline-grabber, a flurry of diplomatic activity surrounding the statement suggests that at least some of the region's leaders may be getting a second wind for giving peace talks a fresh chance.

"We heard about the Arab Peace Initiative, and we say come and present it to us. You want to talk to us about it; we are ready to sit down and talk about it carefully," Olmert said. If invited elsewhere to discuss it, he said, "I'm ready to come."

Olmert also met with Jordanian King Abdullah II Tuesday in the port city of Aqaba to have discussions away from the current limelight in Petra, which boasts a complex of ancient Nabatean remains and a plethora of modern hotels. The two did not speak to the press, which has been full of speculative reports about a new initiative afoot, being proposed or at least promoted by the Bush administration.

However, according to the Associated Press, King Abdullah told Olmert during their meeting that Israel first had to take concrete steps to improve relations with the Palestinians. The king stressed that reports of new Israeli settlements and the expansion of existing ones stand in contradiction to Israel's quest for peace, said Amjad Adayleh, spokesman for the Jordanian Royal Palace.

Returning from a two-day trip to Iraq, Vice President Dick Cheney met with the Jordanian king, and told reporters during his stopover in Shannon, Ireland, that the two had discussed the king's sense of urgency that something be done to reverse the stagnation in the peace process, which has largely been frozen since the September 2000 outbreak of the Al Aqsa intifada.

In recent days, Palestinian newspapers have carried reports that a proposal kicking around for many years has resurfaced: the creation of a Palestinian-Jordanian confederation as an answer to the difficulties of creating an independent, viable Palestinian state.

King Abdullah was due to meet Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas, known as Abu Mazen, in Ramallah on Sunday, but canceled at the last minute due to inclement weather.

Any signs of life in a peace process come at a particularly historic moment on the calendars of the region.

Israelis are marking Jerusalem Day, celebrating 40 years of what is officially considered to be the reunification of Jerusalem, including the predominantly Arab parts that were part of Jordan until June 1967. Palestinians, for whom East Jerusalem is an occupied territory, held solemn memorials to mark the day of al Nakba, or the Catastrophe, the term used in the Arab world in reference to Israel's creation in 1948.

The complications surrounding any new drive for returning to substantive peace talks worsened Tuesday in Gaza when at least nine members of a Fatah security force were killed in an attack that Fatah blamed on Hamas.

Internal fighting between the two main Palestinian factions has worsened in recent days despite repeated efforts to reach a sustainable truce. On Monday, the Palestinian Authority's interior minister, Hani Qawasmi, resigned, saying that he was fed up with attempts to bring rival security forces to operate under a joint command.

At the conference in Jordan, Yasser Abed Rabbo, the secretary general of Fatah, the mainstream faction of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), suggested that all parties "stop making excuses" about not having an appropriate peace partner.

"We have an historic opportunity, and we can find all kinds of excuses to miss it. We have an Arab Peace Initiative, and it's a unanimous decision to make peace, a long and lasting peace normalizing relations with Israel, if Israel will agree to withdraw from the Arab occupied territories," Mr. Abed Rabbo said.

He added that after many years of inaction, Palestinians see a renewed push toward "exploring the political horizon" – a catchphrase used by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice on her last visit to the region – and that this was another way of referring to the final status talks Israelis and Palestinians were meant to complete seven years ago.

The issues in the talks included solving thorny issues such as Palestinian refugees, borders between Israel and the future Palestinian state, the status of Jerusalem, and water, to name a few.

While these talks should happen under an international umbrella, core issues must be decided by Israelis and Palestinians alone, Abed Rabbo said, evincing concerns that Palestinian decision-making could be overtaken by Arab countries dominant in the Saudi-authored initiative.

"Anyone who thinks that the Arab initiative can replace negotiations between the Israelis and Palestinians is dreaming, and it's a bad dream," he said. "The Arabs will not replace the Palestinians ... in making difficult decisions."

Shimon Peres, the vice premier in Olmert's government, lamented that most Palestinians' views do not appear to be in line with those of President Abbas, a moderate with a tenuous hold on authority in the Palestinian territories. "I wish that the policies of Abbas [were] the policies of the Palestinians," Peres said. "Then we [would] have peace in 24 hours."

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