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Saturday, February 23, 2008

Saudis warn they will withdraw Arab peace initiative

 Last update - 11:26 23/02/2008       
Arab states threaten to rescind 2002 Saudi peace initiative
By The Associated Press
CAIRO, Egypt - Arab officials are warning they could withdraw their landmark offer of peace and full ties with Israel in exchange for a return of Arab lands, unless Israel explicitly accepts the initiative.
The warnings reflect increasing Arab impatience with the long-stalled peace process with Israel. Peace negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians have bogged down since they were relaunched at the U.S.-sponsored Annapolis peace conference last November after a seven-year hiatus.
Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal - whose country sponsored the Arab peace initiative, adopted by Arab nations in 2002 - warned Thursday that despair would force us to review these options, including withdrawing the proposal.
He accused Israel of sabotaging the initiative, which is now facing grave danger.
The Arab plan offers Israel full recognition by the Arabs and peace, in return for complete withdrawal from the lands Israel captured in the 1967 Six-Day War, as well as the establishment of an independent Palestinian state with East Jerusalem as its capital. It also calls for Palestinian refugees' right of return to their homes in Israel to be addressed.
Israel initially rejected the plan. Last year, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert praised the plan as showing a positive approach and said it would be taken into account in the peace process. But he stopped short of accepting it and rejected its call on refugees. Israel has also rejected the full withdrawal called for in the plan, hoping to hang on to several settlement blocs in the West Bank and to keep much of east Jerusalem, with its holy sites.
Arab leaders are planning to hold a summit in March in the Syrian capital, Damascus, at which they are expected to reiterate their adherence to the peace plan. But ahead of the gathering, they have stepped up their warnings it could be rescinded.
The head of the Arab League, Amr Moussa, said the Arabs extended the hand of peace to Israel with the peace proposal but now face unprecedented Israeli obstinacy.
"The key to solving the Arab-Israeli issue is to hold serious negotiations, not fictitious ones," he said.
Moussa's deputy at the League, Mohammed Sobeih, accused Israel of putting the sole political initiative on the table at risk. "If Israel makes it fail, they [Arabs] have to search for other options," Sobeih told reporters on Friday.
Israeli-Palestinian peace talks have been marred by ongoing Israeli construction in the West Bank and east Jerusalem, areas the Palestinians want for their future state, as well as by the near-daily rocket barrages into Israel from the militant Hamas rulers of Gaza and Israel's blockade of the coastal strip.
The struggling talks have thrown into doubt hopes expressed by all sides at Annapolis that a final settlement could be reached by December 2008.
Arab countries, including Syria, participated in the Annapolis gathering, hoping that it meant a strong U.S. commitment to push forward negotiations -and American pressure on Israel to make concessions. In recent weeks, several Arab leaders have expressed frustration with the talks.
Saud, whose country is a close U.S. ally, blamed Israel during a gathering of South American-Arab foreign ministers in Argentina on Thursday.
"It's unbelievable that we keep blaming the weak party in the equation, which is the Palestinian people, with all the suffering they live under, while ignoring what Israel does by expanding settlements, tightening the siege, humiliating the Palestinians and carrying out a mass punishment against them," al-Faisal said.
Egypt in particular fears a failure of the Palestinian-Israeli talks, worried this may boost the Palestinian militant group Hamas, which controls the Gaza Strip and could eventually saddle Egypt with the responsibility for the Mediterranean area.
Egypt faced a tough test last month when hundreds of thousands of Palestinians, blockaded in Gaza, streamed into Egypt's Sinai Peninsula after Hamas blew holes in the border wall.
The breach ended Israel's tight blockade of the coastal strip, imposed a week earlier in response to a spike in rocket attacks on Israeli border towns. Egyptian troops resealed the border 12 days later.

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