TOKYO (AP) – The revival of a 2002 Mideast peace plan proposed by Saudi Arabia would be an important first step in rejuvenating the peace process, Israeli and Palestinian officials said Tuesday.
Israeli Vice Premier Shimon Peres said the proposal represented important progress in the Arab position on Israeli, while Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat called the plan “a major step forward.”
The plan calls for a full Israeli withdrawal from areas captured in the 1967 Middle East war, and the establishment of an independent Palestinian state. In exchange, Israel would receive full diplomatic recognition from the Arab world.
Israel rejected the plan in 2002, but has shown renewed interest amid lack of progress in direct talks with the Palestinians, despite continued reservations. An Arab summit in Saudi Arabia on March 28-29 is expected to revive the proposal.
Peres, however, said the plan would be a starting point for negotiations, rather than the final destination, and he rejected setting any prior conditions for beginning talks.
“As an Arab position, it is progress, and we would like to continue negotiations,” Peres told reporters. “But it is the opening position, not yet the fallback,” he said. Peres said the plan represented and advance from past Arab refusals to recognize Israel’s right to exist, but that tough issues such as refugees and the status of Jerusalem, which both Israel and the Palestinians claim as their capital, would have to be worked out in talks.
In the past, Israel has rejected the plan’s call for a full withdrawal from the West Bank and east Jerusalem. The current Israeli government has also expressed reservations about the plan’s call for Palestinian refugees to be allowed to return to homes inside Israel. Israel says the return of large numbers of refugees would mean the end of the country as a Jewish state.
Erekat confirmed the Saudi plan was taken up seriously during talks Sunday between Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, and he called the plan “the most strategic thing to come from the Arab side since 1948.”
“It’s a major step forward for the Arab strategy for peace,” Erekat told reporters. “I hope the Israelis will really revisit this document,” he added later.
Peres, Erekat and Jordanian officials were in Tokyo for a four-way “confidence-building” conference, focusing on economic and environmental cooperation in the region. Peres also said that Israel’s talks with the Palestinians had been hampered by deep differences in policy between Abbas’ more moderate Fatah Party and Hamas, which took over the Palestinian Cabinet and legislature a year ago after winning parliamentary elections. “The problem is when you have two governments instead of one government, how can you negotiate?” Peres said. But Erekat said differences between Fatah and Hamas were typical of countries with political parties with varied policies, and he argued that in any case, only Abbas had the power to negotiate with the Israelis. “If Israel wants to engage in serious negotiations, Abu Mazen is their partner,” he said, referring to Abbas by his nickname.
Both Peres and Erekat, who spoke separately, said the talks in Tokyo starting on Wednesday would focus on fostering economic and environmental cooperation. “If this will be a success, it will open a new vista for the peace process in the future,” Peres said, while Erekat called moves to improve economic development in the region a key step to a “two-state solution” to the conflict.