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At summit, allies condemn U.S. policy

One Arab leader decries the occupation of Iraq, and another calls Israeli-Palestinian peace talks unfair.

March 29, 2007|Noha el Hennawy and Borzou Daragahi | Special to The Times

RIYADH, SAUDI ARABIA — Bush administration attempts to revive Arab-Israeli peace talks suffered a setback Wednesday as leaders at an Arab League summit here, including the heads of state of several U.S. allies, condemned Washington's foreign policy and refused to budge on a peace proposal that Israeli officials have criticized.

Saudi King Abdullah condemned the "illegitimate foreign occupation" of Iraq, and Arab League Secretary-General Amr Moussa lamented "the absence of honest mediation" in the Arab-Israeli conflict, a shot at U.S. officials perceived as too pro-Israeli.

"In our beloved Iraq, blood is shed among brothers under ... illegitimate foreign occupation and detestable sectarianism that raises the threat of a civil war," said the king, the summit's host.

A host of pressing problems threatening this volatile, oil-rich region arose during the first sessions of the two-day summit.

They included the standoff between Iran and Britain over Tehran's capture of 15 sailors and marines in the Persian Gulf, fears of an impending nuclear arms race, the situation in Iraq and the standoff between government and opposition forces in Lebanon.

But the festering conflict between Palestinians and Israelis, viewed by many as the wellspring for the region's rising Islamic radicalism, took center stage at the summit. Abdullah, in a forceful speech, condemned the U.S.-backed aid boycott of the Palestinian Authority government led by Hamas militants who don't recognize Israel's right to exist.

"In wounded Palestine, the resistant [Palestinian] people are still suffering from oppression and occupation, deprived of their right to independence and to have a country," the Saudi king told the arriving diplomats.

Saudis want to revive their 2002 peace plan in which they proposed granting Arab recognition of Israel in exchange for a host of concessions, including the withdrawal of Israeli forces from land occupied after the 1967 Middle East War and a "just solution" for Palestinians who fled their homes after Israel's founding in 1948.

Israel, which shunned the proposal in the past, has warmed to it in recent months under U.S. pressure. The nation called on the Arab League to revise the document and praised Saudi attempts at generating a dialogue.

"We see it as a positive -- the fact that the Arab community wants to talk with Israel after years of isolation. It's a positive change," said Yariv Ovadia, the Israeli Foreign Ministry's deputy spokesman. "I hope this will encourage the Palestinians to do the same."

But Israel has demanded changes in the initiative. It argues that the language on refugees leaves the door open to the return of large numbers of Palestinians to land that is now part of Israel, which would endanger the country's identity as a Jewish state. Israeli officials also object to a full withdrawal to the pre-1967 lines because that would mean surrendering parts of Jerusalem and major blocks of Jewish settlements.

But in public statements, both Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat decried any changes to the Saudi proposal.

"We may have neither state, army, aircraft nor economy but no force on Earth can force us to sign something that does not meet our interests or our demands for a comprehensive, permanent and fair peace," Erekat told an Arab news channel.

There has been increasing discussion here of wider regional talks in which Israel and the Palestinians would join representatives of four major Arab nations -- Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan and the United Arab Emirates -- as well as members of the so-called Quartet of Middle East mediators. Those are the United States, the European Union, Russia and the United Nations.

The Bush administration sees the Arab League gathering as a possible way to revive a peace process stalled for more than six years, though most analysts say Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's domestic unpopularity gives him limited bargaining power.

U.S. policymakers hope to rally Arab allies in Cairo, Riyadh and Amman, Jordan, to confront an increasingly strident Iran, which supports anti-Israeli partners in the Palestinian territories, Syria and Lebanon.

Experts on the Saudi kingdom were divided over the significance of Abdullah's comment about the U.S. presence in Iraq being "illegitimate," with one cautioning against reading too much into it and another calling the statement extraordinary, given that Riyadh has officially recognized the Iraqi government and accepted post-invasion U.N. resolutions regarding Iraq.

Once among the Bush administration's most trusted allies, Abdullah has bucked the White House in recent months, inviting Washington's arch-nemesis, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, to Riyadh and cajoling Washington's Palestinian ally, Abbas, into joining a coalition government with Hamas, which the State Department lists as a terrorist organization.

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daragahi@latimes.com

Special correspondent El Hennawy reported from Riyadh and Times staff writer Daragahi from Tehran. Times staff writer Ken Ellingwood in Jerusalem contributed to this report.

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