- The Washington Times - Monday, September 25, 2006

JERUSALEM — An Israeli newspaper reported yesterday that Prime Minister Ehud Olmert secretly met with a senior Saudi Arabian official to discuss Iran’s nuclear program and peace between Israel and the Palestinians.

Mr. Olmert later told the Web site of the daily Yediot Ahronot that he didn’t hold talks with Saudi King Abdullah, but he did not deny meeting with a high-ranking Saudi.

“I did not meet with the Saudi king and I did not meet with anyone who should cause a media stir,” Mr. Olmert said.

In Saudi Arabia, the Foreign Ministry said no one was immediately available to comment on the report.

Since Israel’s war against Hezbollah guerrillas in Lebanon ended last month, the leaders of Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan and Syria have been calling for a new push in peacemaking to prevent future conflicts.

The Yediot report quoted an unspecified number of anonymous Israeli officials as saying Mr. Olmert met with Abdullah 10 days ago. It described other officials as hinting that the talks were with a senior official close to the king.

The Israeli daily Ha’aretz later reported that the meeting took place on Sept. 13, and Israel’s Army Radio said the talks were held in the royal palace in Riyadh.

Saudi Arabia, which has no diplomatic ties with Israel, has been trying to revive a regional peace initiative it presented in 2002. Israel rejected the plan at the time, but Mr. Olmert has indicated he might be more open than his predecessor, Ariel Sharon.

Yediot first reported last week that Israel and Saudi Arabia had been holding secret talks since fighting erupted in July between Israel and Hezbollah in Lebanon.

Saudi Arabia’s peace initiative called for a full Israeli withdrawal from lands it captured in the 1967 Mideast War in exchange for normalization and relations with all Arab countries. Mr. Sharon rejected it outright, but Mr. Olmert struck a different tone in the interview with Yediot last week.

“I am very impressed with different processes and statements that are connected to Saudi Arabia, some that have been stated publicly and others as well. I am very impressed with King Abdullah’s wisdom and sense of responsibility,” Mr. Olmert was quoted as saying.

There also were signals from Syrian President Bashar Assad that he might consider renewing peace talks with Israel.

“I don’t say that Israel should be wiped off the map. We want to make peace — peace with Israel,” Mr. Assad was quoted as saying in an interview to the German magazine Der Spiegel, which was released over the weekend.

Israel rejected the overture, saying Mr. Assad had to stop supplying arms to Hezbollah and sponsoring Palestinian militants allied with the ruling Hamas party before peace talks would be possible.

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