Arab Foreign Ministers Agree on Formula for Supporting Palestinians

Arab foreign ministers discussed an Israeli-Palestinian peace initiative Monday that has captured the world's attention, but said they did not go into details and were waiting to hear what Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah has to say about his proposal.

The foreign ministers wrapped up six hours of consultations in preparation for a summit Wednesday that Abdullah will address.

On Iraq, they expressed opposition to any U.S. military strike on a fellow Arab state, which is widely viewed as potentially destabilizing for the region.

Still unclear as the summit approached was whether Israel would allow Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat to attend. Arafat has been under an Israeli travel ban and Israel has said the price for his freedom of movement is a cease-fire that's proven elusive. An Israeli decision on whether Arafat could go was expected Tuesday or possibly even Wednesday morning.

Leaning on Israel to drop its confinement of Arafat to his West Bank headquarters in Ramallah, White House Spokesman Ari Fleischer said in Washington, "the president believes that Prime Minister Sharon and the Israel government should give serious consideration to allowing Yasser Arafat to attend."

Secretary of State Colin Powell pressed the point in telephone conversations with Sharon Saturday and Sunday, saying also that Arafat should be permitted to go back to the West Bank after the Arab League meeting.

An aide to Palestinian Planning Minister Nabil Shaath, speaking in Beirut on condition of anonymity, said Shaath had spoken with Arafat on Monday evening and was told things were looking "positive" for the Palestinian leader to attend Wednesday's summit. Earlier, Shaath had assessed the chances of Arafat showing up as slim.

The Kuwaiti minister of state for foreign affairs, Sheik Mohammed Al Sabah, told reporters that ministers "did not discuss the (Saudi) initiative in detail and did not enter into formulas."

"We are eager to listen to his highness directly," Sheik Mohammed told a small group of reporters at the Phoenicia Hotel summit site.

Lebanese Foreign Minister Mahmoud Hammoud, host of the meeting, concurred at a separate news conference held with Arab League Secretary-General Amr Moussa.

"There is no specific formula (for the Saudi initiative) -- there are ideas, a vision and a framework," Hammoud said. "We should not make predictions and jump the gun."

Pressed for further details, Hammoud said: "Our understanding (of the initiative) is that it has to do with Arab rights and constants. ... It aims to defend and protect Arab rights, asking for what we all want."

"Assuming that Israel does what is required of it, then the level of normal relations between the Arab countries and Israel would be looked into," he added.

If Arab leaders share that understanding, the initiative likely would run into Israeli objections.

When floated in mid-February, Abdullah's idea was simple: A full Israeli withdrawal from Arab land seized in 1967 for full peace with Arab nations. But since then, matters have been getting complicated.

What had set the Saudi initiative apart from past efforts was Abdullah's offer to Israel of completely normal relations with the entire Arab world -- in theory, that means embassies in each other's capitals, trade relations, travel back and forth by citizens and politicians. Hard-line oppose offering so much to Israel, while others want to ask more in return.

At another foreign ministers meeting earlier this month in Egypt, hard-line Syria sought -- and diplomats said received -- a watering down of the Saudi language calling for normalization. They said the wording became "complete peace" -- seen as carefully ambiguous language that could lead to disputes in interpretation strong enough to scuttle the effort.

Various purported drafts have said different things -- "normal peace relations" and "normal and natural peace relations," and simply a peaceful end to the Arab Israeli conflict.

Several moderate Arab states, including Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Jordan, want a simple initiative, but a few nations want to add positions on all outstanding issues -- positions on handling refugees and the sensitive issue of Jerusalem, said Rafic Khoury, editor in chief and political analyst for Al-Anwar daily newspaper in Beirut.

"If it becomes complicated, it will be an initiative just on paper," Khoury said, adding he expects a compromise: "This is the Arabic way."

Lebanon and its powerful neighbor, Syria, have maintained among the hardest line, and Hammoud delivered a speech earlier Monday rejecting "anything less than regaining our firm rights."

Sharon presented his own peace plan with the Palestinians on Monday. He told members of his Likud party that he favors a three-stage process, starting with a cease-fire, then an open-ended partial agreement and finally talks on a peace accord. He did not give details.

After Monday's preparatory session, the foreign ministers did not elaborate on their own proposals to support the Palestinians. Various draft proposals circulating have called for Palestinian refugees to be allowed to return to their homes in accordance with U.N. resolutions. Hammoud repeated that call, one which Israeli has heard before and rejected.

Hammoud and Moussa said the ministers would call for the withdrawal of Israel from occupied Arab territory, support the Palestinians and call for the establishment of a Palestinian state. Beyond that, they did not elaborate.

Moussa said he expects the summit to produce "a very clear statement ... in so far as peace is concerned and as far as Israel's aggressive policy against the Palestinian people and Palestinian civilians."