RIYADH (Reuters) – Saudi Arabia criticized Israel on Tuesday for setting preconditions to Middle East peace talks and urged it to accept an Arab initiative first proposed in 2002 and discuss details later.
“We only hear of conditions from Israel about everything, but no acceptance. You cannot have negotiations like that, you accept the proposals then you talk about this,” Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal said.
“This seems a ludicrous way of doing business,” he said at a news conference with visiting European Union foreign policy Chief Javier Solana.
A 2002 Arab League summit in Beirut adopted a Saudi initiative offering Israel normal ties with Arab countries in return for full withdrawal from land it occupied in the 1967 Middle East war.
On Sunday, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert appeared to open the door to exploring whether the Saudi plan could aid the quest for an Israeli-Palestinian settlement. The initiative, he said, “is a subject we would be willing to treat seriously”.
But Israel has said it cannot accept some terms in the proposal, including the total withdrawal from territory captured in 1967 and the return of Palestinian refugees to what is now the Jewish state.
Diplomats in Riyadh, which hosted Palestinian crisis talks in the holy city of Mecca last month, speculate that Saudi Arabia wants to revive the initiative.
The Mecca meeting led to a unity government deal between Islamist group Hamas and President Mahmoud Abbas’s Fatah faction, and ended fighting between the two groups.
Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh, who belongs to Hamas, said on Saturday he and Abbas would travel to Saudi Arabia after the government is formed for a summit to revive the plan.
Prince Saud praised the EU for welcoming the Mecca deal. “We look forward to the (EU) support … for the Palestinian government,” he said.
Solana said the EU would grant more aid to the Palestinians this year than in 2006. Israel has been withholding tax revenues the Palestinian Authority uses to pay government staff since Hamas won parliamentary elections in January 2006. Western powers have also frozen direct aid to the Hamas-led government. “We will not let the Palestinian people down,” Solana said.
Prince Saud hinted little progress had been made in ending a rift between the Lebanese government and opposition parties, led by the Shiite Muslim Hezbollah, after a rare visit to Riyadh by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad earlier this month.
Hezbollah is backed by Syria and Iran, while Saudi Arabia, the United States and France support the government.
“We hope that Iran, whatever influence it has over some of the factions in Lebanon, will work for normalization so that negotiations can be carried out between protagonists, without feeling they have a gun pointed at their heads,” he said.
Solana said he would discuss with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in Damascus on Wednesday how to improve the situation in Lebanon.
He said the next meeting of the Quartet of Middle East peace brokers — the United States, European Union, Russia and the United Nations — would be held in the region with Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates also attending.
Diplomatic sources say the meeting will be held in Egypt in the second half of April.