Is Ehud Olmert yielding on the Saudi proposal for Israeli-Arab peace?
That was the question Israel's pundits were asking Sunday as the prime minister held another round of anti-climactic talks with the Palestinians while signaling he wanted to engage in big-picture diplomacy with the Arab League.
"Israel continues to make every effort to make the most of the chance for finding a comprehensive solution to the conflict between us and the Palestinians," Olmert told his Cabinet before hosting Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas over lunch in Jerusalem. "We are willing to hold a dialogue with any grouping of Arab states about their ideas."
Olmert aides said he was alluding to an Arab League working group set up to promote the Saudi proposal for comprehensive Israeli-Arab peace.
Jerusalem has cautiously welcomed the plan, first proposed in 2002 and reissued in Riyadh last month, while voicing misgivings about its call for a full Israeli withdrawal from lands captured in the 1967 Six-Day War and an agreed-upon solution to the Palestinian refugee problem.
But Israeli sources say that Olmert, facing continued diplomatic deadlock with the dominant Palestinian faction Hamas and an ascendant nuclear threat from Iran, is coming around to the idea of dealing directly with moderate Arab regimes.
While his government lacks the power to enact major concessions, Olmert could well be hoping to edge toward a peace deal along the lines of the Saudi proposal that would decisively marginalize Hamas.
"Olmert would very much like to say a qualified yes to the Arab initiative at present," wrote Ma'ariv's political commentator, Ben Caspit. "Therefore he is trying to create a delayed, challenged, censored agenda and to set this process in motion without calling things by their true name.
"Even if the chances of it ever maturing into something genuine are not high, that chance exists. And that too is something..."
Actually, the talks this time were better than previous ones, and there was a positive Palestinian proposal to patrol the Gaza borders. If any progress was made on freeing Gilad Shalit, it was not mentioned thus far. Of course, if there is anything to the Arab peace offer, it must be pursued.
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