Arab Ministers Discuss Saudi Peace Plan

Arab foreign ministers met in Cairo on Saturday to discuss the details of a Saudi peace offer that has raised hopes of calming the Israeli-Palestinian conflict even as it reaches its bloodiest stage yet.

The initiative, which offers Israel peace, trade and security from Arab countries in return for withdrawal from Arab lands it captured in the 1967 Mideast war, is expected to dominate the two-day meeting, Palestinian Planning Minister Nabil Shaath said on Friday.

Shaath said if the right of return of Palestinian refugees to Israel becomes part of the proposal, there's a good chance it will be adopted at a March 27-28 summit of Arab leaders in Beirut, Lebanon.

Israel has shown interest in the initiative put forward by Saudi leader Crown Prince Abdullah — though it rejects any full withdrawal to pre-1967 lines and the refugees' right to return — and the United States has called it positive. Vice President Dick Cheney is to discuss the Saudi plan and other peace proposals when he turns the region this week.

Jordanian Foreign Minister Marwan Muasher called the Saudi initiative a "political frame for a comprehensive solution."

Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal said his country's initiative was a "touchstone" that tests Israel's will for peace. Arabs have chosen peace, he said, asking, "Why cannot there be an Israeli stance abiding by the same?"

Before the ministerial meeting opened Saturday, Muasher said 10 Arab ministers reviewed the Saudi proposal, but he gave no details.

The ministers also were briefed on Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak's recent talks with President Bush in Washington, Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Maher told reporters. He said a U.S. response to the Middle East crisis "has witnessed an improvement."

The Arab ministers' gathering came after the deadliest day in the Palestinian-Israeli fighting in 17 months, with 39 Palestinians and six Israelis killed on Friday.

Arab League Secretary-General Amr Moussa told the foreign ministers of the 22-member body that "the Arab strategic choice is peace," but that Israel has made violence its "permanent strategic policy."

Kuwait's minister of state for foreign affairs, Sheik Mohammed Sabah Al Salem Al Sabah, who is chairing the meeting, said Israel was not serious in reaching a comprehensive solution to the Mideast conflict.

The Saudi plan has won the support of heavyweight Arab countries, including Egypt, Jordan and Syria. Libya and Iraq have rejected the initiative, calling for Arab support for the Palestinian uprising to be stepped up.

It is not certain, however, that the plan will be discussed in the Beirut summit. The Palestinians say that unless their leader Yasser Arafat is able to attend the gathering, Crown Prince Abdullah will not present the proposal. Israeli troops have confined Arafat in the West Bank town of Ramallah for months.

In an emergency meeting late Friday, the ministers called on the United States and the United Nations to "immediately intervene to stop the unnecessary Israeli violence," according to a statement.

Other topics on the agenda include financial aid to Palestinians and Arab efforts to get the approval of the U.N. Security Council to send international observers to the Palestinian territories — a demand that Israel and the United States have previously rejected.

The issue of Iraq also is expected to be discussed amid speculation that Saddam Hussein may become the target of a U.S. military action unless he agrees to the return of U.N. weapons inspectors.