Israel pressed on peace plan

Arab leaders urge acceptance of accord with Palestinians as annual summit ends

March 30, 2007|By Noha el Hennawy and Megan K. Stack | Noha el Hennawy and Megan K. Stack,LOS ANGELES TIMES

RIYADH, Saudi Arabia -- Arab rulers called on Israel to accept a peace plan that would normalize ties and put an end to the searing, decades-old Arab-Israeli conflict as the annual Arab summit drew to a close here yesterday.

But both sides remained skeptical of the other's intentions. Calling for Israel to relinquish lands it captured in the 1967 war and for the long-elusive creation of a Palestinian state, the plan was flatly rejected by Israel when it was first unveiled in 2002.

Even as they threw their political weight behind a push for peace, the rulers gathered in the Saudi capital sniped at Israel.

"Whenever Arabs come up with clear, frank and transparent decisions toward peace, [Israel] rejects them," said the Saudi foreign minister, Prince Saud al Faisal. "This [approach] does not show a country that wants peace."

There has been no immediate official Israeli reaction to the Arab endorsement of the plan this week. But Israel has long been leery to even consider several of the plan's key steps, including Israeli withdrawal from parts of the West Bank and the inclusion of Arab East Jerusalem in a Palestinian state.

Israel also rejects the return of Palestinian refugees who lost their homes in what is now Israel, arguing that the influx of so many Arabs would destroy the Jewish state from within.

But Arab rulers insisted there was no backing down on their demands, and refused to amend the wording. Speaking to reporters after the Arab summit drew to an end, Arab League Secretary General Amr Moussa sounded a hard-line warning to Israel.

"Israel ... wants normalization only, and nothing with it," Moussa said. "The Arab position is that nothing is for free."

Speaking before the assembly of kings, presidents and other Arab potentates, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas also warned Israel against rejecting the plan.

"We should not waste more chances in the history of this long and painful cause," he said.

Hamas, too, seemed leery of the plan, which steps vaguely around the issue of Palestinian refugees' "right of return" to Israel. The dominant force in the Palestinian government, Hamas called on the Arabs not to compromise on the issue.

The United States cheered the Arab leaders' endorsement. The Americans are hopeful that Arab involvement might steer Israel and the Palestinians back into serious peace negotiations. U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice had toured the region in the days leading up the summit to bolster support for the initiative in the Arab capitals.

Jordan's King Abdullah II, a key U.S. ally, warned the gathering that the plan's success would depend upon American willingness to pressure Israel to compromise.

"Peace between Arab states and Israel cannot be reached unless Israel deals positively and seriously with the Arab initiative," he said.

With regional woes piling up, and precious little leverage to alleviate the troubles, the Arab leaders threw their focus on the region's classic problem: the Arab-Israeli conflict.

But the rising power of Shiite Iran, a historical foe to Arab Sunnis, overshadowed the summit. In its final declaration, the rulers decried the nuclear arms race sparked by the widespread fear that Iran is racing to build a nuclear bomb.

Noha el Hennawy and Megan K. Stack write for the Los Angeles Times.

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