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Arab Leaders Discuss Regional Peace


Arab leaders are meeting in Saudi Arabia in a bid to revive their 2002 Middle East peace plan. The two-day summit will also address crises in Sudan's Darfur region, Iraq and Lebanon. VOA Correspondent Challiss McDonough has more from Riyadh.

Arab leaders at the summit urged Israel to accept the five-year-old Arab peace plan, saying it offers the possibility of peace and recognition with all of its neighbors.

It promises Israel normal relations with all Arab countries, in exchange for Israeli withdrawal from all land it took during the 1967 Arab-Israeli war.

Israel rejected the proposal when it was first put forward in 2002, but has more recently said that it views the plan as a possible basis for talks. One key Israeli objection is to the return of Palestinian refugees to homes in what is now Israel.

Arab League Secretary General Amr Moussa said Israel should accept the Arab proposal first, and then move to negotiations.

"We are at a crossroads," he said. "Either we move forward to a real peace, which we are ready for, or we see more escalation, which many are ready for."

Summit host Saudi King Abdullah called for an end to the international embargo on the Palestinian government.

"It is necessary to end the unjust blockade imposed on our Palestinian brothers as soon as possible," he said.

Saudi Arabia mediated a settlement last month that ended months of fighting between rival Palestinian factions and created a unity government, and Arab states have hoped that the progress would help end international sanctions, imposed when Hamas took control of the government. The United States and Europe consider Hamas a terrorist organization.

Leaders at the summit are dealing with a number of thorny regional issues in addition to the Israeli-Palestinian divide. Saudi King Abdullah said the Arab League nations are more divided than ever.

The conflict in Sudan's Darfur region and worsening Sunni-Shia violence in Iraq are both high on the agenda. So is the political crisis in Lebanon, which sent two delegations to Riyadh, one led by the president and the other by the prime minister.

Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir defended his rejection of U.N. peacekeepers in Darfur, saying he prefers U.N. logistical and financial support for the existing African Union force of 7,000 troops deployed there. The United Nations has been trying to get President Bashir to agree to a much larger U.N. peacekeeping force.

Wrapping up his first visit to the Middle East since taking office, new U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said instability in the Arab League states is "of profound significance for international peace and security."

"This visit to the region has convinced me that this summit is the most important you have held in recent years," he said. "The Middle East region is more complex, more fragile and more dangerous than it has been for a very long time."

Saudi Arabia has not hosted a full Arab League summit in more than 30 years.

The kingdom usually prefers a quieter, behind-the-scenes approach to diplomacy, but has lately taken an unusually assertive and public role in working to solve several regional crises, especially the ones in Lebanon and Iraq.

Saudi officials are trying to put the kingdom's best face forward, organizing cultural events and tours for visiting journalists and dignitaries. Authorities have temporarily relaxed some of the normal restrictions to accommodate female delegates and journalists, some of whom would normally be unable to visit the kingdom without being accompanied by a male relative.

Security for the summit has been extremely tight, with many of the streets of Riyadh shut off and military helicopters buzzing in the skies.

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