/ 29 March 2007

Arab leaders urge Israel, world to take peace offer

Arab leaders on Thursday endorsed a peace plan to end a decades-old conflict with Israel and the Palestinian president warned of more violence if the ”hand of peace” was rejected.

Speaking at the end of an Arab summit in Riyadh, Mahmoud Abbas urged Israel not to waste the chance for peace, and called for a committee led by Saudi Arabia to pursue it.

”I reiterate the sincerity of the Palestinian will in extending the hand of peace to the Israeli people … We should not waste more chances in the history of this long and painful cause,” Abbas told the closing ceremony of the two-day meeting.

”The entire region will be under renewed threats of war, explosions, as well as regional and international confrontations, as a result of the absence of a solution or the impossibility of implementing one.”

The Arab summit drew world and Muslim leaders who backed the Arab plan offering Israel normal ties with all Arab countries in return for its withdrawal from land occupied in the 1967 Middle East war, the creation of a Palestinian state and a ”just solution” for Palestinians displaced in 1948.

The final communiqué, read by Arab League chief Amr Moussa at the close of the summit, affirmed ”just and comprehensive peace as a strategic option for the Arab nation in accordance with the Arab peace initiative” based on the ”land for peace” formula.

Rejected by Israel when it was originally proposed at a Beirut summit in 2002, the plan has key hurdles to overcome.

Israel objects to important elements, including the proposed return to 1967 borders, the inclusion of Arab east Jerusalem in a Palestinian state and the return of Palestinian refugees to homes in what is now Israel. Backed by its United States ally, the Jewish state has said it prefers to negotiate the terms of peace first.

”I would say this: Let’s conduct negotiations. You come with your positions, and we will come with ours,” Israeli Deputy Prime Minister Shimon Peres told Israel Radio.

”I don’t think we need to predetermine what we accept or don’t accept. Each side should come with their own positions and negotiate from there.”

Islamist group Hamas, which heads the Palestinian government, also has reservations about the plan. It has not voiced opposition but called on Arab leaders not to compromise on the right of refugees to return to homes lost in the turmoil surrounding the creation of Israel almost 60 years ago.

Nuclear race

The summit comes against a tense regional backdrop with fears high among Arab leaders that a US-led attack on Shi’ite Muslim Iran, which has refused to comply with United Nations demands to halt atomic work, could further destabilise their region.

The summit communiqué warned of the danger of a nuclear arms race in the region, though it also stressed the right of every country to possess nuclear energy for peaceful uses.

Iran says its atomic programme is peaceful but Gulf Arab countries on its doorstep, most of them Sunni-led, share Western concerns that the Islamic Republic wants nuclear bombs.

Those suspicions add to long-running concerns among Gulf Arabs about non-Arab Iran’s growing influence in the region’s main hotspots — Iraq, Lebanon and the Palestinian territories.

Gulf Arab states said last year they would begin developing their own joint nuclear energy programme for electricity and water desalination, raising fears of a regional nuclear race.

The Arab summit communiqué also warned of the dangers of growing sectarianism in the region.

Iraq is mired in sectarian violence that has stoked Sunni-Shi’ite tensions across the region and with no end in sight to a crisis in Lebanon, Arabs are keen to avoid more tension in a Gulf region that supplies much of the world’s oil.

Iraqi President Jalal Talabani pledged in his speech to give more power to Iraqi Sunnis but also called on Arab states to help stem a Sunni insurgency in Iraq and forgive Iraqi debt.

”We are also of the opinion that the base of the political process should be widened,” he said, acknowledging a need to end state ”factionalism” in apparent reference to Shi’ite Muslims.

He said a de-Ba’athification committee, set up to remove remnants of Saddam Hussein’s regime, could be replaced by an ”accountability and justice” process — a key Sunni demand.

But in return, he said: ”We need all forms of support from you — security, political and economic, through ending the debts incurred by the former regime.” — Reuters