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Arab Foreign Ministers Meet,  Anticipating Israeli Assault on Gaza


Egypt's president, Hosni Mubarak, is meeting Saturday with the leaders of Saudi Arabia and Syria in the Egyptian Sinai town of Sharm el-Sheik. On the agenda are what to do in light of an anticipated Israeli military assault on Gaza, and whether to attend a proposed Middle East peace conference.

Leaders of the Arab world have been keeping close contact ahead of what some believe to be imminent Israeli assaults on Palestinian territories, following a Palestinian suicide bombing Tuesday that killed 15 Israelis.

Arab foreign ministers met Friday in Cairo and Saturday, Egyptian President Mubarak meets with Syrian counterpart Bashar al Assad and Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Abdullah.

Egypt plays an important role in Arab-Israeli peace moves, and is the Arab nation with the longest-running peace deal with Israel.

However, President Mubarak has not committed to a U.S. and European proposal for a Middle East peace conference this summer. He and his aides say a decision to convene such a conference must follow some progress in dealing with the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, beginning with an Israeli withdrawal from Palestinian areas.

"We have had many conferences," Mr. Mubarak said, "but the agreements are never fulfilled. If past Israeli-Palestinian agreements had been fulfilled, we would not need any more conferences," he said.

In letters to U.S. President Bush and Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, Mr. Mubarak has warned against any renewed military strikes on Palestinian territories that would, he said, "throw the region into further deterioration." Saudi Arabia is the sponsor of a peace plan under which Arabs would offer a normalization of ties with Israel in return for its total withdrawal from areas it occupied in 1967.

Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al Faisal said he believes "peace is now closer at hand," because of what he calls a "new, pro-active U.S. stance on the Middle East," which could help bring Israelis and Palestinians back to peace negotiations.

The prince also hails the unanimous Arab acceptance of its land-for-peace plan, adopted at the Arab summit in Beirut in March.

Even staunch Arab foes of Israel, such as Syria, have accepted the Saudi plan. Israel has called it "interesting," and the United States has given it qualified support.

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