Saturday, December 2, 2006

Saudis lead Israel peace bid

Times Online

"THE Saudi Arabian government is emerging as a key player in talks to broker a comprehensive Arab-Israeli peace agreement.
According to senior Israeli sources, Ehud Olmert, Israel’s prime minister, will soon meet high-ranking Saudi officials to explore the formation of a group of moderate Arab countries to negotiate with Tel Aviv over the future of the Middle East.

A preliminary meeting between Olmert and a leading Saudi representative took place in Amman, the Jordanian capital, at the end of September. According to Israeli sources, the Saudi was Prince Bandar bin Sultan, the former ambassador to Washington and one of the closest advisers to King Abdullah, the Saudi ruler.

Olmert is believed to be considering a Saudi initiative, endorsed by the Arab League four years ago, as the basis for a peace settlement.

This would include the establishment of an independent Palestinian state and could lead to a formal peace deal between Israel and seven Arab countries: Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Qatar, Oman, the Emirates, Morocco and Tunisia.

Olmert promised the Palestinians their own state last week in a conciliatory speech that he was said to have written himself.

Condoleezza Rice, the American secretary of state, praised the speech and her officials welcomed it as a promising sign that “a regional peace dialogue may be resumed”.

However, an Israeli insider said: “The truth is that it was not Olmert’s own initiative but a dictate given to him last month when he met George W Bush and Condoleezza Rice in Washington.”

An Arab source said: “The Saudis wanted to see Olmert commit publicly to what he promised Prince Bandar at the secret meeting in Amman.”

According to Israeli officials, Saudi Arabia is gradually taking over the role of principal peace broker previously played by Egypt.

Saudi influence is seen as invaluable, particularly as the country has funded many Arab causes. Hamas, the militant group that won Palestinian elections last January, was established with Saudi money; and the Palestinian Authority would have collapsed long ago without Saudi funding.

Olmert, his reputation damaged by this summer’s war in Lebanon, is looking for a dramatic initiative to restore his image at home."

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