Arab Leaders, Saudi Prince Discuss Mideast Peace Plan

Leading the talks at the Arab League Summit was Crown Prince Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, who offered a proposal allowing for “normal relations” between Israel and Arab countries in exchange for a Palestinian state.

Abdullah said the Arab world should offer “normal relations and security for Israel in exchange for full withdrawal from all occupied territories, recognition of an independent Palestinian state with al-Quds al-Sharif [east Jerusalem] as its capital and the return of refugees.”

In Washington, President Bush praised the Saudi proposal, which is similar to plans discussed in previous peace negotiations.

“The president commends [Abdullah’s] leadership and he urges other leaders to build on the Crown Prince’s ideas to address the cause of peace in the troubled region,” White House spokeswoman Claire Buchan said.

Immediate Arab response to the Saudi initiative appeared mixed. Syrian President Bashar al-Asad said he supported the plan with some reservation, but pushed for all ties with Israel to be cut as long as violence continued against Palestinians. Egypt and Jordan are the only Arab countries that have signed peace treaties with Israel.

Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat did not attend the conference, but in an interview with Al Jazeera television, he urged Arab leaders to accept the proposal.

“The Palestinian leadership confirms that it welcomes the enlightened, brave initiative launched by… Crown Prince Abdullah,” Arafat from his headquarters in the West Bank city of Ramallah. “This initiative, God willing, will turn into an Arab initiative at this summit for the peace of the brave between us and the Israeli and Jewish people.”

The Palestinian leader had been scheduled to address the conference live via satellite, but that appearance was cancelled by Lebanese officials, prompting the Palestinian delegation to walk out. Palestinian representatives have reportedly agreed to return now that a taped version of Arafat’s speech will be shown Thursday, the summit’s final day.

Arafat decided not to attend the summit on Tuesday, after the Israeli government laid out travel guidelines that included possibly barring him from re-entering the country if violence continued in his absence. Several other key Arab leaders also dropped out of the summit at the last minute, including the leaders of Egypt and Jordan.

Despite efforts in Lebanon to forge a lasting settlement, in Israel, the violence and bloodshed showed no signs of abating. A Palestinian suicide bomber killed 15 people and injured as many as 100 at a hotel in the Israeli coastal resort city of Netanya. The Palestinian blew himself up in a crowded dining room as Jews gathered for a ritual Passover seder.

According to the Reuters news service, the militant group Hamas has taken responsibility for the attack.

The explosion marks one of the most deadly attacks since violence began 18 months ago and threatens to end peace talks led by American envoy Anthony Zinni.

Despite Hamas’ statement, Israel blamed Arafat for the attack, saying the Palestinian leader has not done enough to end the killings and that they will have to reconsider their participation in the talks.

“Arafat is to blame for the violence that emanates from the territories under his control,” Israeli government spokesman David Baker said. “It is clear the Palestinians are bent on using everything at their disposal for killing and maiming as many Israelis as possible anywhere, anytime.”

There was no immediate response from the Palestinian Authority.