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Saudi: Arab-Israel Peace Plan Not on Table Forever - ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive
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KUWAIT CITY (AP) — A day after fighting stopped in the Gaza Strip, Saudi Arabia’s king warned Israel on Monday that an Arab peace initiative won’t remain on the table forever.

Arab countries have split in two camps over the crisis — one supporting Hamas’ hard-liners, the other hoping to lure the Palestinian militant group toward more moderation.

But Saudi King Abdullah urged Arab countries to end that rift during an Arab economic summit in Kuwait. He blamed Israel for the Gaza crisis, while pledging $1 billion to rebuild the coastal strip, and invited the leaders of Egypt, Qatar and Syria to lunch after the meeting’s opening session.

“Israel has to understand that the choice between war and peace will not always stay open and that the Arab peace initiative that is on the table today will not stay on the table,” Abdullah said during a speech at the summit.

It was Abdullah’s first comments since Israel and Hamas declared a fragile cease-fire to halt three weeks of combat in Gaza that killed more than 1,250 Palestinians and 13 Israelis.

The Arab peace initiative — first proposed by Saudi Arabia in 2002 and relaunched in March 2007 — offers Israel collective Arab recognition in exchange for Israeli withdrawal from territory it occupied during the 1967 Mideast war, the establishment of an independent Palestinian state with East Jerusalem as its capital and a just solution to the problem of Palestinian refugees.

Israel initially rejected the initiative in 2002, but in the past year has said it could be a starting point for discussions.

“The position of the Israeli government is that the Arab peace initiative remains a basis for dialogue between Israel and the Arab world,” Israeli spokesman Mark Regev said Monday. “And we continue to be willing to negotiate with all of our neighbors on the basis of that initiative.”

But prospects for Arab-Israeli peace seem dim following Israel’s offensive in Gaza. The death and destruction enraged many Arabs and further strained relations between Israel and the Palestinians. Israel said it launched the campaign Dec. 27 to halt Hamas rocket fire into Israel.

Progress toward a final peace deal has been slow, especially since Hamas seized control of Gaza from the rival Fatah movement in June 2007, widening the division between the two main Palestinian factions. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, a Fatah member, controls only the West Bank, and the two sides have been unable to come up with a power-sharing agreement.

After Hamas refused to renew a six-month truce with Israel last month, Egypt and Saudi Arabia initially blamed Hamas for the Gaza crisis. Later, as Israel’s offensive pressed on with an increasing Gaza death toll and pressure mounting from the public in the Arab world to support Hamas, the two Arab powerhouses shifted their accusations toward Israel.

But the divisions between Arab countries grew deeper last week when Qatar hosted a summit. Egypt and Saudi Arabia led a boycott of the gathering, which Qatar had called to take a united stance on Gaza but ended up being dominated by supporters of Hamas.

At that gathering, Syria called for putting the peace initiative on hold — a more radical position than the one outlined by Abdullah.

But Monday, Qatar’s prime minister, Sheik Hamad bin Jassim Al Thani, expressed optimism after his country’s emir had lunch with Abdullah, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and Syrian President Bashar Assad.

“We hope that we will put hands in hands and heal the wounds to strengthen the Arab position,” he said. He did not elaborate, and it was unclear how open Qatar was to working with its political rival, Saudi Arabia.

Assad did not appear to have softened his stance, proposing that the economic summit adopt a resolution declaring Israel a “terrorist entity.”

Egypt’s Mubarak, meanwhile, took a veiled swipe at Syria by criticizing Iran’s influence in Gaza as well as the Persian state’s ties with some Arab leaders. Iran and the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah are two of Hamas’ main backers and both have strong relations with Syria.

“It’s regrettable that we allow the ambitions of foreign forces to impose their hegemony on the area, to penetrate our Arab world and trade with the blood of Palestinian souls,” Mubarak said.

But Abdullah focused on Israel. He denounced Israel’s military tactics in Gaza, saying the Jewish holy book called for “an eye for an eye and did not say an eye for the eyes of a whole city.”

The king said his country’s $1 billion donation for Gaza would go to a proposed fund that Arabs are setting up to rebuild the seaside territory.

Kuwait’s emir announced that his country, an oil-rich U.S. ally, would donate $34 million to the United Nations agency that provides aid to Palestinian refugees.

But it remains to be seen whether Arab expressions of sympathy for the citizens of Gaza translate into actual funds to rebuild the city. Arabs have often criticized Israel for the plight of Palestinians, but promised financial support has not always materialized.

In Jerusalem, a senior European Union official said Monday that she expected humanitarian aid to Gaza to flow quickly but signaled that reconstruction would begin only when the EU has an acceptable Palestinian partner.

Visiting EU External Relations Commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner did not explicitly single out Hamas, but she strongly hinted it would be difficult to rebuild Gaza as long as the Islamic movement remains opposed to international peace efforts.