RIYADH, Saudi Arabia – Arab leaders on Thursday called on Israel to accept their land-for-peace offer and open direct negotiations with the Arabs, hoping to give a new push to the long-stalled Mideast peace process.
Unlike past summits that at times saw overt feuds break out, the gathering of Arab kings, emirs and presidents showed unusual public unity as it revived the peace offer, which it first made in 2002 only to meet rejection from Israel.
But still unknown is how the Arabs will persuade Israel to accept the initiative, which the United States and Europe hope can help build momentum for a resumption of peace talks. Israel has said it could accept the offer with some changes, but the Arab leaders refused to amend it.
Instead, they created "working groups" that will seek to drum up support for the deal from the U.S., U.N. and Europe. American allies Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan hope the smaller groups will be able to be more flexible in promoting the offer to win acceptance, despite the summit's rejection of changes.
Israeli government spokeswoman Miri Eisin said Israel sees the "initiative as interesting and as the possible basis for a dialogue. We're not being more specific than that because we need to really sit down and study it."
Jordan's King Abdullah II called on the United States to push Israel to accept the offer. "Peace between Arab states and Israel cannot be reached unles Israel deals positively and seriously with the Arab initiative," he said in a speech to the gathering. "That is the real challenge for the leaders of the region and the world, especially the United States."
Negotiators from the Quartet of Mideast mediators — the U.S., U.N., European Union and Russia — hope to meet with Israel for the first time before the summer, EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana said. The Quartet will also hold talks with Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates in the next few weeks, he said.
In a final resolution approved by the summit, the Arab leaders called on Israel "to accept the Arab peace initiative and seize the available opportunity to resume direct and serious negotiations on all tracks."
The initiative offers Israel recognition and permanent peace with all Arab countries in return for Israeli withdrawal from lands captured in the 1967 Middle East war. It also calls for setting up a Palestinian state with east Jerusalem as its capital and a "just solution" to the issue of Palestinian refugees forced out of lands in what is now Israel.
Israel rejects a full withdrawal from the West Bank and east Jerusalem, and it strongly opposes the influx of large numbers of Palestinian refugees into the Jewish state. It seeks changes to water down the provisions on refugees in particular.
The United States' Arab allies painted the peace offer as key to achieving progress at a time of mounting crises across the Mideast, including the bloodshed in Iraq. The Arab summit called on Iraq's Shiite-led government to change its constitution and military to give a greater role to Sunni Arabs.
"The Arab world is at a crossroads," Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak said. "It is confronting crises and dangerous challenges, from the stagnation of the peace process, the situation in Iraq, Lebanon's political crisis and the escalating international standoff with Iran."
The summit ended Thursday without an agreement on who will participate in the working groups due to promote the peace initiative. Arab governments will work that out later, but membership could be a significate issue. Some want them to be restricted to the more moderate states Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan and the United Arab Emirates in hopes they can convince the U.S. and Israel to come on board.
But hardline Syria may want to be on board, fearing it will be sidelined. The number of working groups has not been determined, but Jordan has said one of them could directly approach Israel.
Syria — which will host next year's summit — sharply opposed any changes in the initiative. But in a summit where unity was the theme, Syrian President Bashar Assad was muted in his insistence the Arabs stick to their original offer.
He said the summit was sending a "strong mesage to those forces eyeing our land and wealth ... that we are an Arab nation that doesn't submit to oppression and refuses to bargain over its rights."