Israelis reconsiders '02 Saudi peace plan
Reply is needed to spur dialogue, Barak says
JERUSALEM - Israeli leaders are seriously considering a dormant Saudi plan offering a comprehensive peace between Israel and the Arab world in exchange for lands captured during the 1967 war, Defense Minister Ehud Barak said yesterday.
Barak said it may be time to pursue an overall peace deal for the region because individual negotiations with Syria and the Palestinians have made little progress.
Barak said he has discussed the Saudi plan with the prime minister-designate, Tzipi Livni, who is forming a new Israeli government. As the leader of the Labor party, Barak is expected to play a senior role in the next administration. Livni's office refused to comment on her talks with Barak.
Saudi Arabia first proposed the peace initiative in 2002, offering pan-Arab recognition of Israel in exchange for Israel's withdrawal from Arab lands captured in 1967 - the West Bank, Gaza Strip, East Jerusalem, and the Golan Heights.
The 22-member Arab League endorsed the plan last year. Israel has said the plan is a good basis for discussion, but expressed some reservations.
"There is definitely room to introduce a comprehensive Israeli plan to counter the Saudi plan that would be the basis for a discussion on overall regional peace," Barak told Israel's Army Radio.
He noted the "deep, joint interest" with moderate Arab leaders in containing Iran's nuclear ambitions and limiting the influence of the radical Islamic Hezbollah movement in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza.
While Israel's outgoing prime minister, Ehud Olmert, has welcomed the Saudi plan, he and other leaders want to keep small parts of the territories captured in 1967.
The Israeli government also objects to language that appears to endorse a large-scale return of Palestinian refugees to lands inside Israel. Israel says a massive influx of Palestinians would destroy the country's character.
Yuval Steinitz, an Israeli lawmaker from the conservative opposition Likud party and a member of parliament's Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, said the Saudi plan is a nonstarter, and he called Barak's remarks "an empty political gesture."
"It doesn't recognize Israel's right to defensible borders [and] demands Palestinian refugees settle in the Jewish state as well as the Palestinian state, which is totally unacceptable," he said.
Israel's ceremonial president, Shimon Peres, proposed putting Israel's various peace talks on one track last month at the United Nations, calling on Saudi King Abdullah to "further his initiative." He has since been pushing the idea in meetings with Israeli, Arab, and Western officials.
Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat noted that pursuing the Saudi peace initiative did not necessarily undermine the direct talks between Israel and the Palestinians and he encouraged Israel to pursue this track. "It is the most strategic initiative that came from the Arab world since 1948," he said.