UNITED NATIONS | A U.N. conference on religious tolerance broke new ground Wednesday when a half-dozen Arab leaders - including Saudi King Abdullah for the first time ever - stayed in their seats while an Israeli president spoke.
Perhaps the reason was that they liked what he said.
President Shimon Peres, a Nobel Peace laureate and leading Israeli dove, embraced a 2002 Saudi peace initiative to recognize Israel in exchange for a withdrawal by the Jewish state to pre-1967 borders.
“I must say there is a profound change in their perception,” Mr. Peres told reporters an hour after receiving what might be the loudest applause an Israeli leader has ever experienced inside the chambers of the U.N. General Assembly.
The two-day conference initiated by Saudi King Abdullah was meant to defuse tensions among religions and sects.
Besides the Saudi monarch, those who sat and listened to Mr. Peres included the king of Jordan, the prime ministers of Morocco and Qatar, the president of Lebanon and the emir of Kuwait.
Until Wednesday, Saudi policy was to publicly shun Israeli leaders.
King Abdullah skipped a U.S.-sponsored conference in Annapolis a year ago and sent his foreign minister, Saud al-Faisal, instead.
Prince Saud then sat in the hall outside the main conference room at the U.S. Naval Academy when it was Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s turn to speak.
At the United Nations Wednesday, King Abdullah opened the event:
“We state with a unified voice that religions through which Almighty God sought to bring happiness to mankind should not be turned into instruments to cause misery.”
Mr. Peres spoke after King Abdullah.
“Your majesty, the king of Saudi Arabia, I was listening to your message. I wish that your voice will become the prevailing voice of the whole region, of all people. It’s right, it’s needed, it’s promising,” the Israeli president said.
Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad reminded the audience of his peoples’ demands.
“Nothing that has been said from this rostrum or any other forum might change the historical fact that East Jerusalem is an occupied Palestinian territory since June 5, 1967,” said Mr. Fayyad, demanding that Israel withdraw from that quadrant of the city and from occupied areas of the West Bank.
The two-day discussion was initially meant to be an interfaith dialogue.
However, General Assembly President Miguel d’Escoto, a Nicaraguan priest, said the United Nations is a body of governments, not religions; therefore, the discussion would necessarily take a broader view.
Still, it was not quite a political discussion, either.
Leaders spoke in general terms about hope, mutual respect and the possibility for peace.
Heads of state and government from 80 nations are expected to speak by the end of the event Thursday afternoon, including President Bush and British Prime Minister Gordon Brown.
The conference opened just hours after Israeli soldiers killed four suspected militants in Gaza, saying the men were laying explosives along the border.
King Abdullah, curiously, did not refer to his 2002 peace proposal, focusing instead on the need for tolerance and the rejection of terrorism.
His appearance aroused criticism from human rights groups, which note that Saudi Arabia does not permit non-Muslims to practice their religions openly.
Jordanian King Abdullah II issued a lengthy appeal for peace and tolerance, switching from Arabic to English early in his speech so that more people in the hall could understand without interpretation.
“The conflict between Israel and the Palestinians is the core conflict in our region,” he said. “It is a political conflict, and it demands a just, negotiated solution.”
He continued: “For with every day that justice is denied to Palestinians, with every day that the occupation prevents a positive future, the regional and global impact has grown. Resentment and frustration are felt throughout the region and, indeed, throughout the world. … Extremists - Muslim, Christian and Jewish - are thriving on the doubts and divisions.”