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Arabs look askance at Olmert offer

Times Staff Writer

Days after Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert invited Arab rulers to Jerusalem for peace talks, the offer seems to have sunk without effect into the mire of regional rhetoric.

None of the key Arab leaders had yet given a firm, public answer to Olmert’s invitation by Tuesday night. The little that had been said, such as a pointed statement from the Saudi Cabinet, could be described as resentful. Rather than hopeful and curious, the reaction among Arab television pundits and newspaper writers ranged from tepid to cynical.

Arabs complained that Olmert was too politically weak in Israel, where his standing in polls has plunged, to deliver any diplomatic breakthroughs. They even lamented the lack of an Israeli strongman in the mold of former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. And they criticized the temerity of the Israeli leader for inviting Arabs to Jerusalem, the holy city whose political fate is one of the great and unresolved issues of the Arab-Israeli conflict.

But mostly, they behaved as though they were still waiting for Israel to make a move.

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“It’s a gimmick,” Abdel Moneim Said, head of Egypt’s Al Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies, said of Olmert’s Sunday speech. “He’s not interested in the promotion of the peace process, but rather in testing the other side.”

The Arab world collectively outlined its conditions for peace with Israel at last week’s Arab League summit in Riyadh, the Saudi capital. The offer: All Arab countries would normalize relations with Israel. In exchange, Israel would have to withdraw from all land seized in the 1967 Middle East War and live peaceably with a Palestinian state that has Arab East Jerusalem as its capital. Israel would also have to accept the return of Palestinian refugees, a condition Olmert firmly rejected again after the summit.

When they endorsed this plan, originally cobbled together five years ago by Saudi Arabia, the Arab leaders made it plain that there was little room to alter their demands. Israel would have to accept the Arab conditions as the framework for negotiation.

Having thrown down the gauntlet, the Arabs may have expected something more, or at least something different, than Olmert’s invitation. The Arab League will sponsor a working group to study opening contacts with Israel, but that seemed to be as far as the Arabs were willing to go.

“They need to say, ‘Yes, we accept this, total withdrawal for total peace, let’s go for it.’ If not, then there has to be another plan,” said Abdel Khaleq Abdullah, a political analyst and talk show host in Dubai, United Arab Emirates. “They need to advance a plan of their own, no matter what it is, with maximum and minimum needs. For now, to say, ‘Let’s talk,’ well, that doesn’t make sense. What is your position? Clarify your position!”

The fundamental disconnect lies in timing: In the Israeli view, Olmert suggested the summit to begin debating the thorny questions that have long impeded peace. But in the Arab world, the suggestion of such a meeting sounded like a reversal of the proper order of things. To attend such a summit would already, in itself, signal recognition of the Jewish state, Arab analysts pointed out.

In most Arab countries, the diplomatic freeze is only the tip of the Arab-Israeli disconnect: Israel is blanked out of maps, the international calling code for Israel is blacked out of telephone books and even the mention of the country’s name is taboo in polite company.

To many Arabs, Olmert’s invitation looked like an effort to get the payoff of Arab recognition without making sacrifices. Most Arab leaders, presiding delicately over populaces that have been educated to abhor the “Zionists,” believe they simply can’t afford to meet with the Israelis without first demonstrating significant and public concessions from Israel.

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The Israeli leader “wants normalization before a peace agreement, which is putting the wagon before the horse. The Arab leaders will not accept Olmert’s proposal,” Ahmed Tibi, an Arab member of the Israeli parliament, said in a radio interview Sunday night. “Olmert must say yes to the Arab peace initiative as a basis for talks, and then only after serious negotiations could a summit take place as a final step toward an agreement.”

The Saudi Cabinet echoed those sentiments Monday in even stronger terms, releasing a statement that declared, “Israel should understand that peace requires it to put an end to violations, repression and constant, inhuman practices against the Palestinian people before any other matter.”

By calling for meetings with moderate Arab states, Olmert was trying to splinter Arab unity, some analysts said.

“What’s not acceptable is for individual countries to go behind the others’ backs and meet with the Israelis. They have to go as a group,” said Khaled Batarfi, a Saudi columnist. The Israelis “are not really interested, but they’re under international pressure and they have to come up with a response. Most people are not really hopeful that anything will come out of this.”

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megan.stack@latimes.com

Times staff writer Richard Boudreaux in Jerusalem contributed to this report.


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