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Arab States Reaffirm Peace Proposal

The Arab League has urged Israel to accept a revived Arab peace proposal aimed at ending the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The call came at the end of a two-day Arab summit in Riyadh. VOA Correspondent Challiss McDonough has more from the Saudi capital.

The summit's closing declaration reaffirmed the Arab states' commitment to the five-year-old proposal that offers Israel peace and normal relations with all Arab countries in exchange for Israeli withdrawal from all land it took during the 1967 Arab-Israeli war.

Israel initially rejected the plan in 2002, but has more recently said it could be a basis for negotiations. It objects in particular to a demand for Palestinian refugees to return to their homes in what is now Israel. As the Arab summit closed, the Israeli foreign ministry stopped short of welcoming the initiative but said it would be willing to hold talks with some Arab nations.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas said the Palestinian people were sincerely extending the hand of peace toward Israel. He said they should waste no more opportunities.

Arab League Secretary General Amr Moussa urged Israel to accept the initiative without demanding amendments as a condition for talks.

"Israel only wants normalization. It does not want withdrawal or talks over Jerusalem or other issues." He said, "It is clear that the Arab stand on this matter is that nothing is free of charge. If they want normalization, we need to see what they will provide in return," he said.

The summit declaration warned of the dangers of a nuclear arms race in the Middle East, while also saying that all countries have the right to peaceful nuclear power. The mostly Sunni-led Gulf Arab states neighboring Iran tend to share U.S. and European concerns about Iran's nuclear ambitions. But the Arab League has traditionally called for discussing Iran's nuclear program only alongside Israel's, which is formally undeclared but widely acknowledged.

The Iranian foreign minister and the U.N. Secretary General both attended the meeting as guests, and they met on the sidelines to discuss, among other things, the capture of 15 British sailors and Marines by Iranian security forces.

Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal called for the quick release of the British troops, calling the incident "inflammatory." "This of course is a very unfortunate incident, and we are afraid it is going to already add to the tense situation that exists in the Gulf. We would like to see this resolved through diplomatic channels and as quickly as possible…. We don't need any added inflammatory incidents in the Gulf," he said.

In his opening speech, Saudi King Abdullah said the Arab League states are more divided now than they have ever been. And so the summit also saw a series of other side meetings aimed at resolving regional diplomatic tensions.

Sudanese President Omar Al-Bashir met with the Saudi monarch and U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon who tried in vain to convince him to accept a U.N. peacekeeping force that is larger than the seven-thousand-strong African Union force currently deployed in Darfur.

President Bashir said he wanted the force to retain an African character, but he was willing to let the U.N. provide logistics and equipment.

Prince Saud said the meeting went a long way toward defusing tensions between the United Nations and the Sudanese government. "Now Sudan agrees that the United Nations will provide the logistics and the equipment to help the African countries. And this means, by definition, that there will be some soldiers [who are] not African soldiers in that. And I think this is a breakthrough that has not happened in the near past. /// OPT /// And we hope it leads immediately to the humanitarian issue to be resolved quickly, and then to move the forces as quickly as possible, with the necessary equipment and backup of the United Nations," he said.

The Saudi foreign minister also said there had been progress in dealing with Somalia. "This meeting resulted in agreement on the optimal ways to encourage the convening of a reconciliation meeting for Somalia, and to mobilize support from the Arab and African international community to ensure its success and achieve Somalia's stability and peace, and to contribute to its rehabilitation and reconstruction and to empower the institutions to enable them to play their roles," he said.

The summit yielded less consensus on the crises in Iraq and Lebanon, where regional differences have been drawn into sharp focus. The assembled leaders agreed on the need to resolve both countries' problems, but not on the details of how that would happen. The summit declaration demanded more Sunni Arab representation in Iraq's government, a move that drew some derision from the Iraqi delegation, led by President Jalal Talabani and Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zubari, who are both Kurds.

The Saudi monarch, in his speech, had referred to the U.S. military presence in Iraq as an "illegal occupation." The State Department said it was "surprised" by the remarks and would seek clarification. The Saudi foreign minister said King Abdullah was simply being straightforward and was not inclined to mince his words for the sake of diplomacy.