Arab Ministers Agree To Revive Initiative For Mideast Peace

By Glenn Kessler
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 27, 2007

JERUSALEM, March 26 -- Arab foreign ministers agreed to relaunch a five-year-old peace initiative with Israel, including establishment of a working group to begin negotiations on the plan, according to reports from Riyadh, the Saudi capital.

"The initiative includes a mechanism to promote it and gain its acceptance and especially registering it officially at the United Nations," Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal told reporters. "That's what's going to happen, so that it becomes a basis and a major reference point for peace in the Middle East."

Under the plan, Arab nations would recognize Israel if it gave up land occupied after the 1967 Middle East war and granted Palestinian refugees the right to return to their homes lost six decades ago when Israel declared it was a state.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, traveling this week in the Middle East, has pushed Arabs to back the long-dormant plan as the basis for negotiations, not a take-it-or-leave-it proposition. Both U.S. and Israeli officials said they were pleased by the decision, which will be formalized later this week at a summit of the Arab League.

One official traveling with Rice called it "a very positive and welcome development," while an Israeli official said setting up the working group is "significant" and could be a breakthrough in the stalled peace process -- even more so than Rice's efforts to start a dialogue with Israelis and Palestinians on the contours of a Palestinian state. Both officials spoke on condition of anonymity because the Arab League had not completed its summit.

For the past two days, Rice has shuttled between Israelis and Palestinians trying to reach agreement on an initiative under which she would start "parallel" discussions with both sides. She also flew to Amman, Jordan, on Monday.

But she postponed a Monday night news conference until Tuesday morning amid signs that Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert was balking at the "parallel" format and at the scope of the issues Rice wanted to raise. U.S. officials met late in the night with Israeli officials to bridge the gaps on the issues, which Israeli sources suggested included Olmert's refusal to negotiate on core issues of the conflict, such as borders, control of Jerusalem and the settlement of refugees.

A U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity, did not respond to questions about Olmert's concerns, but said that Rice will announce that Olmert and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas will meet on a regular basis, beginning discussions on confidence-building measures while "leaving the door open to discussion of all issues." He added that Rice will make "periodic visits" to the region, where she will "raise all political-horizon issues in parallel with both sides." Political horizon is Rice's code for sketching the contours of a Palestinian state.

Olmert, who has been noticeably cool to the notion of a new approach while Rice has been here, used almost the same language when he held a news conference Monday with U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki Moon. "Whether this can be described as a new initiative, I frankly don't know," he said.

Olmert has also emphasized the role of President Bush at every turn, suggesting that Rice has no monopoly over U.S. policy. "I certainly appreciate the efforts of the secretary of state under the inspiration or guidance of the president, in order to advance the processes of dialogue," he told reporters.

Rice has also touted Bush in her visit here, noting that the president expressed confidence in her efforts before she left and that he has been deeply involved in her planning for the trip.

Correspondent Faiza Saleh Ambah in Jiddah, Saudi Arabia, contributed to this report.

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