RIYADH, Saudi Arabia, (AP) – Arab leaders at their summit Thursday agreed on a call for Israel to accept their land-for-peace offer and open direct negotiations with the Arabs. Unlike past summits that at times saw overt feuds break out, the gathering of Arab kings, emirs and presidents showed unusual public unity as it revived the peace offer, which they first made in 2002 only to meet rejection from Israel.
But still unknown is how the Arabs will persuade Israel to accept the initiative, which the United States and Europe hope can help build momentum for a resumption of the long-stalled peace process. Israel has said it could accept the offer with some changes, but the Arab leaders refused the amend it.
Instead, they created “working groups” that will seek to drum up support for the deal from the U.S., U.N. and Europe. U.S. allies Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan hope the smaller groups will be able to be more flexible in promoting the offer to win acceptance, despite the summit’s rejection of changes.
“The Palestinian people is sincere in extending its hand of peace to the Israeli people, and I call on that people and its leaders to share that dream with us,” Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas told the summit in a speech Thursday.
He said Saudi Arabia should head the working groups, which should have “freedom to move according to the circumstances to achieve our national goals.”
The summit was to “call on the government of Israeli and the Israelis at large to accept the Arab peace initiative and seize the available opportunity to resume direct and serious negotiations on all tracks,” according to a draft resolution expected to approved by the Arab leaders before the close the two-day summit later Thursday.
The initiative offers Israel recognition and permanent peace with all Arab countries in return for 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 a “just solution” to the issue of Palestinian refugees forced out of lands in what is now Israel.
Israel rejects a 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. It seeks changes to water down the provisions on refugees in particular.
The United States’ Arab allies painted the peace offer as key to achieving progress at a time of mounting crises across the Mideast, including the bloodshed in Iraq. The Arab summit was to call on Iraq’s Shiite-led government to change its constitution and military to give a greater role to Sunni Arabs.
“The Arab world is at a crossroads,” Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak said. “It is confronting crises and dangerous challenges, from the stagnation of the peace process, the situation in Iraq, Lebanon’s political crisis and the escalating international standoff with Iran.”
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and U.N. chief Ban Ki-moon both toured the region ahead of the summit, trying to build momentum for the peace process and the Arab initiative. Ban spoke Wednesday at the summit, calling the initiative “one of the pillars of the peace process” and urging Israel to “take a fresh look at it.”
Arab League Secretary-General Amr Moussa rejected amending the peace offer, saying, “They tell us to amend it, but we tell them to accept it first, then we can sit down at the negotiating table.” But he said the Arabs must “do more to convince” the Israelis on the offer.