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Arab Summit Leaders Back Saudi Peace Plan - 2002-03-28

Arab leaders meeting in Beirut have approved Thursday a plan for peace in the Middle East tabled by Saudi Arabia. The agreement came at the end of an Arab League summit in the Lebanese capital.

The delegates to the Arab League summit, which represent 22 Arab states and the Palestinian territories, unanimously backed a Saudi plan that calls for, among other things, a full Israeli withdrawal from all Arab territories. In return, all Arab states would agree to normalize relations with Israel and end all hostilities.

During a news conference following the summit, Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al Faisal expressed hope that Israel would also agree to the plan. "Genuine peace will not come out of the muzzles of guns. It will come from the hearts and minds," he said. "I hope the people of Israel, who are interested in their security and stability and the future of their children, will see to it that this peace initiative be responded to."

While the peace plan was the centerpiece of this year's summit the two-day conference ended with fears of more bloodshed. The Palestinian delegation to the summit expressed "deep concern" there will soon be "a large-scale Israeli military strike in the occupied territories."

Palestinian Foreign Minister Farouk Qadoum told the delegates he believes "Israel will strike in a matter of hours" in response to the Palestinian suicide bombing Wednesday. Twenty-one people were killed and more than 100 were wounded in the blast, which occurred at a hotel in northern Israel.

The Palestinian delegation, which had walked out of the summit Wednesday to protest the summit's failure to televise a speech by Yasser Arafat, returned Thursday and expressed full support for the Saudi peace initiative.

Lebanon's foreign minister, Mahmoud Hamoud, said now that the summit had approved the initiative, it was up to Israel to take the next step.

Mr. Hamoud said "We call on Israel to withdraw from all Arab territories occupied since June 4, 1967. Work to find a solution to the problem of Palestinian refugees. Accept the independent, sovereign state of Palestine with East Jerusalem as its capital."

In return, Mr. Hamoud went on to say, all Arab states would consider their conflict with Israel to be over, followed by a normalization of relations with Arabs and Israelis living side-by-side as neighbors.

Arab League Secretary-General Amr Moussa said the peace initiative cannot be "divided into pieces," saying Israel must either accept the proposal as written or the peace process will not continue.

But it is not likely Israel will accept that condition. A foreign ministry spokesman, Emmanuel Nachson, was quoted Thursday as saying the Saudi proposal was "unacceptable" in its current form. Allowing Palestinian refugees the right of return, he said, would destroy the Jewish state.

The Saudi peace initiative was the major but not the only measure approved at the summit. Conference delegates also supported a resolution calling on the international community to respect and affirm the territorial integrity of Iraq. Mr. Hamoud said that any potential attack against Iraq would be considered "an attack against the security and safety of all Arab states."

In an unexpected show of solidarity, Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah walked into the conference hall side-by-side with a top Iraqi official, Izzat Ibrahim, the deputy of the Iraqi Revolutionary Council. The pair were greeted by the applause from the delegates.

A resolution calling on Iraq to give a greater accounting of Kuwaiti prisoners of war in Iraq since the 1990 Iraqi invasion of Kuwait was also approved. It came on the heels of a series of agreements reached between Iraq and Kuwait aimed at normalizing relations between the two countries. Even so, Kuwaiti Foreign Minister Sheikh Mohamed Sabah said he still has serious reservations about trusting Saddam Hussein. He reminded the delegates of an incident that occurred shortly before Iraq attacked Kuwait.

"We dealt first with Saddam Hussein," he said. "He is a quintessential political chameleon. He gave our emir, just four months prior to his invasion of Kuwait, the highest medal that a person can give to a head of state. Four months later he occupied my country, ravaged my people and still continues to hold hostages. Yes, we do not have trust in Saddam Hussein. We are hopeful those around him can talk some sense into him."

Summit organizers said this year's summit will be remembered as "one of the most successful in Arab history."