- The Washington Times - Sunday, April 1, 2007

JERUSALEM — Prime Minister Ehud Olmert yesterday invited Arab leaders to a regional peace conference to discuss their ideas for resolving the Arab-Israeli conflict.

Mr. Olmert made the surprise call during a flurry of international peace efforts. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has traveled to Israel repeatedly to try to spur negotiations. German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who is the current president of the European Union, was in Israel yesterday to buttress those efforts.

Speaking at a joint press conference with Mrs. Merkel, Mr. Olmert said, “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 each side would bring its own demands, and neither would try to dictate terms.

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.

Mr. Olmert’s invitation yesterday marked the first time Israel has called on Saudi Arabia — which maintains a state of war with Israel but also has pushed recently for a peace deal — to take the lead.

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. Mr. 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.

He proposed a regional meeting but said he would attend a meeting under Saudi auspices.

He said that if King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia invited him, moderate Arab leaders and Palestinian Authority 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.”

Saudi Arabia issued no response.

Saeb Erekat, the chief Palestinian negotiator, said Mr. 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, Mr. Olmert said he would welcome talks with Saudi Arabia and moderate Arab leaders, but he stopped short of calling for a regional peace conference.

Mrs. Merkel cautiously embraced the idea. “It is important to talk, but is also is important to turn the spoken word into deeds,” she said.

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