- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 11, 2007

JERUSALEM - Prime Minister Ehud Olmert yesterday said he was ready to “treat seriously” a dormant Saudi initiative calling for a comprehensive peace agreement between Israel and the Arab world in exchange for a full Israeli withdrawal from lands captured in the 1967 Middle East War.

Mr. Olmert made the comment to his Cabinet before a strained meeting with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas his second in the past month which produced little other than a promise to ease restrictions at a key cargo crossing into the Gaza Strip.

The talks, following an inconclusive meeting on Feb. 19 attended by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, are part of U.S.-backed efforts to urge the sides to a return to peace talks.

The Saudi peace initiative, which aimed to solve the Palestinian issue by offering Israel a comprehensive peace, was first proposed in 2002 but never got off the ground. It is expected to be high on the agenda at an Arab League summit later this month in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.

The Saudis, who have never backed away from the initiative, have been pushing hard for other regional countries to embrace the plan.

Mr. Olmert told his Cabinet that Israel is following developments in the Arab world “with the utmost attention” and noted “positive developments” among moderate Arab countries.

“We have said more than once that the Saudi initiative is a matter which we would be ready to treat seriously and we have not altered our position,” he said. “We hope very much that at the meeting of heads of Arab states to take place in Riyadh, the positive elements expressed in the Saudi initiative will be revalidated and will perhaps improve the chances of negotiation between us and the Palestinian Authority.”

The Saudis are pushing at a time when many moderate Arab governments are worried about rising tensions in the region and view progress on the Palestinian-Israeli issue as a way to lower the pressure and to blunt Iran’s growing influence.

Israel in the past has expressed reservations about the Saudi plan. In particular, Israel has resisted calls for a full withdrawal from the West Bank and East Jerusalem both captured in the 1967 war.

Israel also objects to the Saudi plan’s endorsement of the “right of return” for Palestinian refugees displaced by the establishment of Israel. There are hundreds of thousands of refugees and their descendants, and Israel says their return to former properties would mean the end of the Jewish state.

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