Olmert Seeks Regional Peace Conference

The Associated Press
Monday, April 2, 2007; 4:15 AM

JERUSALEM -- Advancing a flurry of recent international efforts to end the Arab-Israeli conflict, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert invited Arab leaders to attend a peace conference to discuss their ideas for reaching Mideast peace.

In making his invitation Sunday, Olmert specifically called on Saudi Arabia to take the lead _ the first time Israel has made such a request of the Saudis, who maintain a state of war with Israel, but have also pushed recently for a peace deal.

Olmert made the announcement at a joint news conference with visiting German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who is currently serving as the president the EU.

"I would take advantage of this important opportunity of being here in Jerusalem with the president of the European Union to invite to a meeting all Arab heads of state, including, of course, the king of Saudi Arabia, whom I regard as an important leader, in order to engage in dialogue," he said, noting that each side would bring its own demands, and neither would try to dictate terms.

Olmert's surprise call came amid a flurry of new international peace efforts.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has repeatedly traveled to Israel to try to spur negotiations, and Merkel was here Sunday to buttress those efforts.

Almost every Israeli prime minister has called for peace talks with moderate Arab leaders over the years, but the only multinational forum was the 1991 Madrid conference, which was followed by secret Israeli-Palestinian contacts and a series of interim peace accords.

At a summit in Saudi Arabia last week, the Arab League renewed a 2002 Saudi peace plan that would recognize Israel in exchange for withdrawal from all captured territories and a just solution for the Palestinian refugees. Olmert welcomed the decision but said Israel did not accept all parts of the plan.

"I think this new way of thinking, the willingness to recognize Israel as an established fact and to debate the conditions of the future solution, is a step that I can't help but appreciate," he said.

While he proposed a regional meeting, he also said he would attend a meeting under Saudi auspices.

He said that if King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia were to invite him, moderate Arab leaders and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to a meeting "to present Saudi Arabia's ideas before us, we will come to hear them and be glad to offer our ideas."

There was no immediate response from Saudi Arabia.

Saeb Erekat, the chief Palestinian negotiator, said Olmert should agree to the Arab peace initiative.

"I think if he accepts the Arab peace initiative, it would open the way to many conferences, not one," he said.

In a series of interviews over the weekend, Olmert said he would welcome talks with Saudi Arabia and moderate Arab leaders, but he had stopped short of calling for a regional peace conference.

Merkel, who met with both Olmert and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas on Sunday, cautiously embraced the idea.

"It is important to talk, but is also is important to turn the spoken word into deeds," she said.

© 2007 The Associated Press