JERUSALEM: Israel said on Monday it was cautiously open to an Arab peace initiative, amid reports that secret talks are being held with the aim of jump-starting the stalled Middle East peace process.
Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni said the so-called Saudi initiative on a comprehensive Arab-Israeli peace deal had some good points, but needed work.
“There are positive elements in the Saudi initiative, but some of its clauses are contrary to the principle of two states,” Livni told Israeli public radio from Washington where she is visiting.
Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said on Sunday that Israel “was ready to take seriously” the peace plan and hoped that an Arab summit on March 28 in Saudi Arabia would bolster its “positive elements.”
“We sincerely hope that at the summit of the Arab leaders in Riyadh the positive element in the Saudi initiative will be emphasised and would maybe allow an opportunity to strengthen the chances for negotiations with the Palestinians on its basis,” Olmert said.
The Saudi plan calls for the Arab world to fully normalise its relations with Israel in return for the Jewish state withdrawing from all occupied Arab territory and the establishment of an independent Palestinian state.
Livni said the initiative contained “two additional clauses very problematic for Israel” concerning the right of return of Palestinian refugees.
One calls for the return of Palestinians who fled or were forced out in 1948. The other rules out their permanent settlement in the Arab states where they have found shelter, a supersensitive issue particularly in neighbouring Lebanon.
The Israeli statements come amid reports that Livni has been holding secret talks with the Palestinians aimed at breathing life into a peace process that has been largely dormant since 2003.
Palestinian sources told AFP on Sunday that Livni has in recent weeks met twice with Yasser Abed Rabbo, a senior member of the Palestine Liberation Organisation, and Salam Fayyad, a former Palestinian finance minister.
The secret talks have touched on the thorniest issues between the two sides, including the final borders of the Palestinians’ promised state and the fate of Palestinian refugees and Jewish settlements in the occupied territories, the sources said.
A Livni aide told AFP that “secret contacts” were under way with the Palestinians, but denied that they were being used as a separate channel for negotiations.
“There are occasional exchanges, but they are not continuous, so there are no negotiations,” he said. “That Tzipi Livni can meet with a Palestinian official in all discretion is true... But she is not holding separate negotiations, neither with or without the approval of Ehud Olmert.”
Abbas has on several occasions said that he favoured a “parallel channel” of talks with Israel, like the secret talks that resulted in the 1993 Oslo accords that paved the way for limited Palestinian autonomy.
The liberal Haaretz newspaper reported that Israel’s top ally the United States -- which has increased its diplomatic efforts in the region in recent months -- was holding separate talks with the Jewish state and Saudi Arabia ahead of the Riyadh summit.
It said, without providing a source, that Saudi National Security Advisor Prince Bandar bin Sultan met Olmert in Jordan last year and was currently in Washington at the same time as Livni.
In December, Israeli media reported that Olmert had met a senior Saudi official in Jordan, a report both Riyadh and Amman branded as false.
Olmert told reporters at the time: “We have decided that on this subject, I am going to deliver a denial but you don’t have to believe it... On other matters, believe all my denials.”
Progress on the Palestinian front would provide a vital lifeline to Olmert, whose ratings have sunk to unprecedented lows following last summer’s inconclusive war in Lebanon and corruption allegations -- just two percent of Israelis now say they trust him.
“Olmert desperately needs a political initiative that will provide him with some political oxygen,” Haaretz said. “The Saudi initiative gives Olmert a chance to recover... He doesn’t have a lot to lose.”