Saudi foreign minister suggests Arabs open to changing peace offer

Saudi Arabia's foreign minister suggested Monday that Arab leaders would be willing to consider changes in their 2002 peace offer to Israel to make it "compatible" with new developments.

The statement from Foreign Minister Saudi al-Faisal came as Arab League foreign ministers agreed to revive the peace plan at a summit later this week. Arab leaders had, until now, publicly rejected Israeli calls for changes to the 2002 Arab peace offer.

But al-Faisal suggested change was likely.

"It is expected from us to take notice of new developments, which require additions and developments in whatever is offered for our leaders about the issues and problems - in order for their resolutions to be compatible with what is dire and new," al-Faisal said.

"The kingdom is keen that this summit should come out with one Arab voice toward issues of destiny, and in particular the Palestinian issue," he added.

The comments came as Mideast peace efforts regionwide seemed to be gathering steam. U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was expected Monday to announce a program for more substantive discussions. Rice is believed to have been strongly pushing Arab leaders to offer some hope of changes in the plan.

In a sign of what might be planned, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert on Monday welcomed the idea of a regional summit with moderate Arab leaders, saying he "would not hesitate" to attend.

Arab diplomats said privately Monday that Arab leaders were seeking fresh ways to moderate their position without being seen as giving in to Israeli or American demands to change the 2002 offer.

Arab countries including Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia will proposing "a repackaging" of the deal, said the diplomats, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the discussions.

The Jordanian and Palestinian foreign ministers said the Arab ministers meeting in Riyadh on Monday agreed to form a committee to promote the initiative with the United Nations, the United States, Russia and European Union.

Ziad Abu Amr, the Palestinian foreign minister, told the Associated Press that the aim was to create a "mechanism for Arab movement with the Arab and regional parties to activate this initiative."

Syria, however, appeared lukewarm to the idea of any changes in the Arab proposal: A state-run newspaper, the daily Tishrin, questioned the motives for Israel and the United States' "sudden zeal" over the plan.

"What are the real motives of the two sides behind putting it on their agenda and talking much about it after an absolute silence for more than five years?" the newspaper asked.

Under the repackaging plan, the Arab leaders would insist that Israel accept the 2002 Arab peace plan in principle before returning to any talks, but would also agree that the Palestinians and Arab countries would be ready to soften their conditions once negotiations began, the diplomats said.

Israel in the past has rejected the plan outright. But Olmert said last week that it could provide the basis for renewed talks with Arab moderates - a sign of Israel's tentative interest as other avenues toward peace have faltered recently.

The offer, initiated in 2002 by Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah, offers Israel recognition and permanent peace with all Arab countries in return for full Israeli withdrawal from lands captured in the 1967 Middle East war. It also calls for setting up a Palestinian state with east Jerusalem as its capital and allowing Palestinian refugees to return to former homes in Israel.

Israel rejects full withdrawal from the West Bank and east Jerusalem, and it strongly opposes the influx of large numbers of Palestinian refugees into the Jewish state, reports AP.

Al-Faisal said the recent formation of a Palestinian coalition government between the militant Hamas and Abbas' more moderate Fatah had "enhanced the chances for a unified Arab position, based on the Arab peace initiative."

"The more clear the Arab position will be in this regard, the more chances will be for this initiative to be adopted by the international community ... and the possibility to enter into negotiations," he said.

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