Saudi Plan Presents Opportunity for Peace in Middle East

Israeli President Shimon Peres endorsed on Thursday the "spirit" of a broad Arab initiative as an "opportunity" that can bring peace to a Middle East, still torn by the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

It was the first time Peres spoke in support of the long-stalled initiative in an Arab country, adding significance to his remarks. The U.S. ally Egypt is a regional heavyweight and was the first Arab country to sign a peace treaty with Israeli in 1979.

Peres' remarks also marked another step in his recent efforts to jump-start a 2002 Saudi proposal for comprehensive peace in the region.

The Nobel peace laureate Peres, whose post is mostly ceremonial, proposed putting Israel's various peace talks on one track last month at the United Nations, calling on Saudi King Abdullah to "further his initiative."

He has since been pushing the idea in meetings with Israeli, Arab and Western officials, his office said. During a visit Thursday to Egypt, Peres held talks with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in the Red Sea resort of Sharm El Sheik. The two later held a joint press conference.

Peres said that while he doesn't accept all of the Saudi plan and it "needs to be negotiated" further, its spirit is "correct."

However, Mubarak openly disagreed with Peres' one-track approach — saying the Saudi initiative is not "open for negotiations."

Mubarak said Palestinians and Israelis should first reach an agreement through bilateral talks, before all Arab states normalize relations with Israel. His spokesman, Suleiman Awwad, later said Mubarak dismisses the idea of all Arab countries holding talks together with Israel before Israeli-Palestinian conflict is resolved.

The 2002 Saudi proposal offers pan-Arab recognition of Israel in exchange for Israel's withdrawal from Arab lands captured in 1967. The 22-member Arab League has endorsed the plan.

"In tandem with the bilateral negotiations with the Palestinians, we need to promote the Arab peace initiative," Peres told reporters.

On Sunday, Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak said Israeli leaders were seriously considering the dormant Saudi plan. He said in radio interview that he had discussed it with Prime Minister-designate Tzipi Livni, who is in the process of forming a new Israeli government, and that Israel is considering a response.

"There is definitely room to introduce a comprehensive Israeli plan to counter the Saudi plan that would be the basis for a discussion on overall regional peace," Barak told Israel's Army Radio.

Israel also objects to language in the initiative that appears to endorse a large-scale return of Palestinian refugees to lands inside Israel. Israel says a massive influx of Palestinians would destroy the country's Jewish character.

Meanwhile, the two leaders also said that they have talked about the fate of a kidnapped Israeli soldier held in the Gaza Strip.

"Egypt will continue its persistent efforts to mediate and ensure success of (Gilad) Shalit release deal and the Palestinian prisoners deal," Mubarak said.

Egypt has been brokering a potential prisoner exchange between Israel and Gaza's Hamas leaders. Hamas is holding an Israeli soldier, captured more than two years ago in a cross-border raid from Gaza into southern Israel.