Friday, November 14, 2008

Israel lauds Saudi peace plan before King Abdullah

UNITED NATIONS (Nov 13, 2008) - Israeli President Shimon Peres seized the rare opportunity of being in the same hall as Saudi King Abdullah on Wednesday to praise a Saudi peace initiative that he said had brought hope to the Middle East.

Addressing a special high-level UN General Assembly meeting on dialogue between different religions, Peres termed some of the language in an Arab peace proposal based on the Saudi initiative "inspirational and promising -- a serious opening for real progress."

It was a rare moment -- an Israeli head of state speaking directly to the Saudi Arabian leader, whose country does not recognize Israel. Egypt and Jordan are the only Arab countries to have signed full peace accords with the Jewish state.

Israeli officials, including Peres, have previously said Israel was seriously reconsidering the 2002 Saudi peace initiative, which calls for full Arab recognition of Israel if it gives up lands occupied in a 1967 war and accepts a solution for Palestinian refugees.

But this was the first time a representative of Israel was able to address Abdullah directly.

"Your Majesty, the King of Saudi Arabia, I was listening to your message," Peres said from the podium after the king spoke of the need for religious tolerance and said terrorism was the enemy of religion.

"I wish that your voice will become the prevailing voice of the whole region, of all people," Peres told Abdullah.

"It's right, it's needed, it's promising," he said.

Unlike Peres, the king did not directly refer to the Saudi initiative when addressing the assembly.

"The initiative's portrayal of our region's future provides hope to the people and inspires confidence in the nations," Peres told the audience, which included US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and numerous Middle Eastern heads of state.

Peres, whose position is largely ceremonial, holds little power. But Tzipi Livni, Israel's foreign minister and chief negotiator in talks with the Palestinians, joined Peres in praising the Saudis.

"The Saudi initiative itself is something that sent a very good message," Livni said at a news conference with Peres. Unfortunately, she said, the Arab proposal based on the Saudi plan was not as good, particularly on the issue of refugees.

Livni, who could become prime minister after Israel's general election in February, added that Arab-Israeli peace needed to be hammered out in bilateral talks between Israel and the Palestinians and its Arab neighbors.

Despite Peres' and Livni's newfound praise, Israel has never officially endorsed the Saudi initiative, citing reservations about refugees and Jerusalem.

Peres said Israel was making progress in talks with the Palestinians and "exploring the possibility of real peace with the Syrians, the last in the list of historic conflicts."

"However, there are those in our region who sow hatred and try to widen the abyss and erect barriers, those who seek to wipe out other people and encourage killing," Peres said.

Disputes over Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank, divisions among the Palestinians and Israel's recent political crisis have frustrated attempts by Washington to clinch an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal by the end of this year.

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said on Tuesday that he did not expect an agreement by then.

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