Israeli Leaders 'Seriously Considering' Saudi Plan For Overall Peace Deal
Aaron Heller2008 08:28 PM EST |
JERUSALEM — Israeli leaders are seriously considering a dormant
Saudi plan offering a comprehensive peace between Israel and the Arab
world in exchange for lands captured during the 1967 war, Defense
Minister Ehud Barak said Sunday.
Barak said it may be time to pursue an overall peace deal for the
region because individual negotiations with Syria and the Palestinians
have made little progress.
Barak said he has discussed
the Saudi plan with Prime Minister-designate Tzipi Livni, who is in the
process of forming a new government, and that Israel is considering a
response. Barak, who leads the Labor party, is expected to play a
senior role in the next government.
Livni's office refused to comment on her talks with Barak.
Saudi Arabia first proposed the peace initiative in 2002, offering
pan-Arab recognition of Israel in exchange for Israel's withdrawal from
Arab lands captured in 1967 _ the West Bank, Gaza Strip, east Jerusalem
and the Golan Heights. The 22-member Arab League endorsed the plan last
Israel has said the plan is a good basis for discussion, but expressed some reservations.
"There is definitely room to introduce a comprehensive Israeli plan
to counter the Saudi plan that would be the basis for a discussion on
overall regional peace," Barak told Israel's Army Radio.
He noted the "deep, joint interest" with moderate Arab leaders in
containing Iran's nuclear ambitions and limiting the influence of the
radical Islamic Hezbollah movement in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza.
Analyst Ghassan Khatib, a former minister in the Palestinian
Cabinet, said interest in the plan was "a little bit late" but welcome.
"I strongly believe that the Arab initiative is the best approach to
peace between the Arabs and the Israelis," he said. "It fulfills all
the legitimate objectives of Israel and those of the Palestinians and
at the same time it has this regional dimension and it reflects one of
the rare issues on which Arabs have consensus."
While Israel's outgoing prime minister, Ehud Olmert
has welcomed the Saudi plan, he and other leaders want to keep small
parts of the territories captured in 1967. Israel also objects to
language that appears to endorse a large-scale return of Palestinian
refugees to lands inside Israel. Israel says a massive influx of
Palestinians would destroy the country's Jewish character.
Yuval Steinitz, an Israeli lawmaker from the conservative opposition
Likud Party and a member of parliament's Foreign Affairs and Defense
Committee, said that for Israel, the Saudi plan is a nonstarter and
called Barak's remarks "an empty political gesture."
"It doesn't recognize Israel's right to defensible borders ... (and)
demands Palestinian refugees settle in the Jewish state as well as the
Palestinian state, which is totally unacceptable," he said.
Israel's ceremonial president, Shimon Peres, proposed putting
Israel's various peace talks on one track last month at the United
Nations, calling on Saudi King Abdullah to "further his initiative." He
has since been pushing the idea in meetings with Israeli, Arab and
Western officials, his office said.
While Peres has no formal role in Israeli foreign policy, he is a
Nobel peace laureate and well respected in the international community.
In Sunday's interview, Barak said he was in full agreement with Peres.
"I had the impression that there is indeed an openness to explore
any path, including this one," he said of his talks with Livni.
Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat noted that pursuing the Saudi
peace initiative did not necessarily undermine the direct talks between
Israel and the Palestinians and he encouraged Israel to pursue this
"I think Israel should have done this since 2002. It is the most
strategic initiative that came from the Arab world since 1948," he
said. "I urge them to revisit this initiative and to go with it because
it will shorten the way to peace."
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas
said Sunday that he would meet with Olmert on Oct. 27. The two leaders
have been meeting regularly this year, to assess progress in peace