Saudi Arabia signaled Monday it is unlikely to accept an Israeli invitation to a regional peace conference, saying that Israel must first stop mistreating Palestinians and move to withdraw from Arab lands.
A strongly worded statement by the Saudi Cabinet said the Arabs made their commitment to peace clear at a summit last week in Riyadh, where they renewed a broad land-for-peace offer to Israel.
“Israel should understand that peace requires it to put an end to violations, repression and constant inhuman practices against the Palestinian people before any other matter,” the Cabinet said.
The statement did not refer directly to Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s public invitation to Saudi King Abdullah and other moderate Arab leaders to meet with him and discuss their ideas for peace.
But the Saudi Cabinet made clear the kingdom is not likely to make any gesture toward Israel unless it initiates significant progress toward establishing a Palestinian state and giving up captured Arab lands.
Olmert specifically called on Saudi Arabia on Sunday to take the lead in holding a regional conference, the first time Israel has made such a request of the Saudis, who maintain a state of war with Israel but are pushing for a peace deal.
Israel’s leader said that if Abdullah were to invite him, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and other moderate Arab leaders to a meeting “to present Saudi Arabia’s ideas before us, we will come to hear them and be glad to offer our ideas.”
Public gatherings rare
The kingdom’s chilly response is not surprising. Although Saudi and Israeli officials have reportedly held secret meetings in recent months, a public gathering would be seen widely by Arabs as a huge concession to Israel without anything concrete in return.
Moreover, meeting openly with Israel would give Osama bin Laden and his al-Qaida terror network more propaganda ammunition to rally followers against Saudi Arabia’s monarchy. Bin Laden has sought to undermine the royal family by calling it un-Islamic for its close ties with Washington.
“The Islamic background to the Saudi state is the biggest obstacle in the face of any reconciliation with Israel,” said Sateh Noureddine, managing editor of the newspaper As-Safir newspaper in Beirut, Lebanon.
“I expect Saudi Arabia to be the last country to sign a treaty with Israel or to open public discussions with Israel,” he added.
The Arab peace initiative offers Israel a comprehensive peace with all Arab states if it withdraws from lands seized in the 1967 war and allows the creation of a Palestinian state with its capital in east Jerusalem. It also calls for a “just solution” for Palestinian refugees.
Olmert welcomed the summit’s renewal of the offer but said Israel did not accept all parts of the plan. Israel wants to retain some settlements in the West Bank, objects to a Palestinian capital in east Jerusalem and fears an influx of refugees into its territory.
All or nothing
Asked about Olmert’s suggestion for a regional conference, the U.S.-backed Lebanese prime minister, Fuad Saniora, said Israel must accept the Arab peace offer unequivocally.
“I think it’s about time for the Israelis to realize that eventually it is important to establish real peace in the region and accept the Arab peace initiative in its entirety,” he told reporters in Beirut.
Hani Khallaf, assistant foreign minister for Arab affairs for Egypt, one of two Arab nations that have peace treaties with Israel, was quoted as saying Monday that Arab nations cannot negotiate on behalf of the Palestinians. The government of Jordan, the other state with a treaty, did not make any immediate comment.
Syria, which demands the return of the Golan Heights as a condition for peace, also had no comment. On Sunday, Olmert asked U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to take a message to Syrian President Bashar Assad saying Israel would be interested in making peace if Syria stopped supporting terrorist groups.
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.