Thursday, March 29, 2007

Israeli Vice Premier Peres calls for direct Arab-Israeli talks

Last update - 19:53 29/03/2007

Report: Peres calls for direct Arab-Israeli talks

By Avi Issacharoff , Haaretz Correspondent, and Reuters

Israel hold direct talks on peace with Arab states, Vice Premier Shimon Peres said Thursday after Arab leaders renewed a peace offer first drafted by Saudi Arabia in 2002.

"Let's sit together as we are supposed to and work on it as we did before with Egypt, Jordan and the Palestinians," he told Al Jazeera television in remarks dubbed in Arabic, but he did not say if Israel accepts or rejects the Arab bid.

The plan, parts of which have been rejected by Israel, offers normal ties with all Arab countries in return for Israel's withdrawal from land occupied in the 1967 Six-Day War, the creation of a Palestinian state and a "just solution" for Palestinians displaced in 1948.

"It is time now to start negotiating and not only to make announcements," Peres said. "We should think about the tactics [for peace] and how to implement them," he said.

"We either do this [peace steps] unilaterally or bilaterally. If you do that unilaterally then you are making a declaration but bilaterally there would be an Arab stance and an Israeli stance and these will include some difference," he said.

Peres said no conditions should be set for the envisaged Arab-Israeli negotiations.

"We propose that we meet without setting pre-conditions and negotiate," he said. "We also want comprehensive peace that tackles all of the stagnant issues," he said.

"Yes there are some differences about the refugees and Jerusalem so we should sit together and solve this issue there is no other way."

Peres did not make a direct stance on the initiative but said: "We respect Arab countries and this conference [summit] ..."

U.S. welcomes Arab endorsement of peace plan
The United States welcomed Arab leaders' endorsement of the 5-year-old peace initiative intended to end the Arab-Israeli conflict, calling it was a "very postive" step.

"That is something that we view as very positive," said State Department spokesman Sean McCormack when asked about the outcome of the Arab summit and endorsement of the 2002 plan drawn up at a previous summit in Beirut.

U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice pressed Arab leaders during a visit to the region over the past week to follow up on the Arab plan and use it as the basis to engage with the Israelis.

Despite Israeli reservations, Rice said she had not asked Arab leaders to amend the plan.

"We encourage them, however, to use it as a point of active diplomacy and as a way of energizing the push for peace in the Middle East. Their efforts and those of others have an important role to play," said McCormack.

McCormack declined further comment on the summit's endorsement of the plan until he had more details but said Rice wanted Arab states to play a more active role in encouraging peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians.

Abbas warns of violence if Israel rejects peace plan
Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas warned on Thursday of violence if Israel rejected a Palestinian "hand of peace," and called for an international conference on achieving 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," he told the closing ceremony of an Arab summit.

"The entire region will be under renewed threats of war, explosions, as well as regional and international confrontations, as a result of the absence of a solution or the impossibility of implementing one," Abbas added.

"We hope our summit would result in the formation of an Arab committee headed by the Saudi Arabian monarchy, the head of the summit, to follow up implementation of the Arab initiative," he said, referring to an Arab land-for-peace proposal.

He called for a "negotiated settlement that will be sponsored by the international community and within the framework of an international peace conference in the region."

Arabs approve Arab peace plan
Arab leaders gathering for a two-day summit in Saudi Arabia on Wednesday unanimously approved the Saudi peace initiative originally launched in 2002.

Abbas voted in favor of the initiative, although Palestinian Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh of Hamas abstained in the vote.

At the summit, Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah called for an end to the international blockade on the Palestinian government. The king said: "It has become necessary to end the unjust blockade imposed on the Palestinian people as soon as possible so the peace process can proceed."

The European Union's foreign policy chief, Javier Solana, on Wednesday urged Arab states to be flexible in their land-for-peace offer to Israel. Addressing the Arab summit, Solana called for an Israeli withdrawal to the pre-1967 boundaries.

He called the Arab initiative a general concept that has to be developed. He also urged Arabs and Israel to deal with the plan as a starting point in negotiations.

In a written message to the Arab leaders gathered in Riyadh, Solana said the EU hopes all the members of the Arab League will fulfill their responsibilities and contribute to the success of this enterprise. "Failure to rise to today's challenges will put the Middle East at risk of missing the train of human and economic development," he said in the message.

Before arriving in Riyadh, Solana expressed optimism that the relaunched initiative could reinvigorate the Middle East peace process. Solana's presence at the summit was designed to highlight the European Union's support for the peace initiative, officials said.

Saudis: Rejection of Arab plan is rejection of peace
If Israel rejects the Arab peace initiative, it means it is not interested in reaching a peaceful solution with its neighbors, Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal said Wednesday. Speaking at the summit, al-Faisal said, "If Israel refuses, that means it doesn't want peace."

Palestinian Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh urged Arab leaders not to compromise on the Palestinian refugees' right to return to their homes in Israel, a clause in the initiative which Israel has asked to modify. "I expect the Arab summit meeting to reiterate the Arab countries' commitment not to compromise on the Palestinian refugees right of return," Haniyeh said.

At the summit, United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon urged Arab leaders to prove they were serious about peace with Israel by reviving their five-year-old initiative.

"The Arab peace initiative is one of the pillars for the peace process... This initiative sends a signal that the Arabs are serious about achieving peace," Ban told Arab leaders.

"When I was in Israel I urged my Israeli friends to take a new look at the initiative. Here in Riyadh, I also urge you, my Arab friends, to benefit from this initiative and reiterate your commitment to it," he said.

At the summit, Arab League chief Amr Moussa urged Israel to accept the initiative rather than ask for changes. "The Israeli response was to ask for an amendment. We tell them to accept it first," Moussa told Arab leaders. "We are at a crossroads - either we move toward a real peace or see an escalation in the situation."

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