BEIRUT, Lebanon – Syria for the first time expressed support for a Saudi peace overture to Israel on Wednesday, giving a crucial boost to the proposal before Arab leaders gather here later this month.
Damascus expressed some reservations about the proposal by Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah, saying it must bring a full Israeli withdrawal from Arab lands and the right of return for Palestinian refugees — stances that Israel has rejected in past peace negotiations.
Still, the vote of support from Syria, a front-line state still officially in a state of war with Israel, is key to forging an Arab stance on the plan, which has been welcomed by the Palestinians, Egypt and Jordan but denounced by Iraq and Libya.
Saudi Arabia wants to present the plan to be adopted when Arab leaders gather in the Lebanese capital March 27-28 for an Arab League summit. But the Palestinians say Abdullah has assured them he won't submit the proposals unless Yasser Arafat — who has been confined for months to the West Bank town of Ramallah by Israeli troops — is allowed to attend.
Syrian President Bashar Assad met with Abdullah on Tuesday in Saudi Arabia to discuss the proposal, which offers Israel peace, trade and security with the Arab world in return for Israeli withdrawal from Arab territories it seized during the 1967 Mideast war — including the Golan Heights, captured from Syria.
Saudi officials have said the details, including the borders of a Palestinian state and the fate of Palestinian refugees, would be left to Israeli, Palestinian, Syrian and Lebanese negotiators.
"President Assad confirms the convergence of Prince Abdullah's ideas with [Syria's] national principles," the Syrian state newspaper Tishrin said Wednesday.
Late Tuesday, the official Saudi Press Agency quoted a Saudi official as saying on condition of anonymity that Assad had "expressed his country's support of [Abdullah's] visions for a comprehensive and just solution for the conflict in the region."
Official Syrian newspapers, which reflect government thinking, raised reservations about the refugee question that Assad has expressed before.
"Peace will not prevail without a full Israeli withdrawal ... and adherence to the right of return," said Al-Thawra, the mouthpiece of Syria's ruling Baath Party.
Israelis say allowing Palestinian refugees — many of them now in camps in Syria, Lebanon and Jordan — to return to what is now Israel would undermine their state's Jewish character.
Israeli leaders have rejected the prospect of any full withdrawal to pre-1967 lines, but have welcomed Abdullah's overture as a starting point for possible talks.
The Israelis are eager for action on the peace front from the Saudis, who traditionally stay aloof from Israel and who carry great weight in the Arab world because of their oil wealth and their role as custodians of the main Islamic shrines.
In a prelude to what is likely to be a lively debate at the Arab summit, Iraqi President Saddam Hussein has rejected the Saudi proposal, saying the Palestinians need weapons and funds, not peace proposals.
On Tuesday, Iraq's U.N. Ambassador said Abdullah has "no right" to speak on behalf of the Palestinian people and say that Arab states will accept Israel.
"It is up to the Palestinians to decide their future ... not to Arab leaders," Mohammad Al-Douri said in New York.
Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi, like Saddam a hard-liner, has said he considered the Saudi proposal "cheap bargaining."
In Iran, Tehran Radio quoted Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi on Monday as saying the plan must include return of Palestinian refugees to Israel.