Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon said Tuesday that former prime minister Ariel Sharon sent him on a secret mission 10 years ago to discuss the Saudi peace initiative with the Kingdom’s representatives, but that they refused to meet him.

Ayalon’s comments came at a Foreign Ministry conference announcing a new ministry initiative to put the issue of Jewish refugees high on the international agenda.

Ayalon, who was Sharon’s foreign policy adviser at the time when the Saudi proposal was publicized a decade ago this week, said he was sent to meet his Saudi counterpart Adel Al-Jubeir, who today is the Kingdom’s ambassador to Washington. Al-Jubeir refused to meet him, Ayalon said.

The deputy foreign minister angrily dismissed comments from someone in the audience who said Israel never gave the Saudi initiative a chance. Ayalon said the problem with the initiative was that it was a presented as a take-it-or-leave-it proposal, and not something that could be negotiated.

During the conference, Ayalon said the Foreign Ministry had directed its ambassadors and representatives abroad to raise with their host governments the issue of approximately 850,000 Jewish refugees who were forced to flee Arab and Middle Eastern countries following Israel’s independence in 1948. Of those refugees, some 650,000 were absorbed in Israel.

Ayalon said that raising the issue served a number of purposes.

Firstly, he said, it was an attempt to redress a historic wrong. Secondly, it will ensure that Israel documents claims from the first generation of refugees, a generation slowly disappearing. Another goal, he said, was to ensure that when the refugee issue comes up in any final negotiations, all immigrants – Muslim, Christian and Jewish – will be treated equally.

Ayalon said that the meeting in the Foreign Ministry – attended by leaders of various organizations representing Jews who fled Arab lands – was being held 64 years too late, but was still relevant.

One of the speakers at the event, former ambassador Zvi Gabay, of the World Organization of Iraqi Jewry, said that Israeli governments were historically reticent about discussing the issue for fear that if Israel brought up Jewish refugees, the Arabs would bring up the issue of Palestinian refugees.

One participant said Israel was taking the initiative on the issue now as a counteroffensive to what is expected to be a new Palestinian statehood push at the UN in the coming months. The point, the official said, was to show that Israel has claims and rights of its own that it could take to international forums as well.

Ayalon said this issue should be raised in every peace negotiation framework, regardless of whether the interlocutors were the Palestinians or Arab governments. He said that during peace negotiations financial compensation for both Jewish and Arab refugees should be raised.

Ayalon said a true solution to the issue of the refugees could only be possible when the Arab League took the historic responsibility for its role in creating both the Arab and Jewish refugee problem.

They were responsible for the Arab refugee problem, he said, by calling on Arabs to leave Israel and pave the way for the invading forces of seven Arab countries in 1948, and they were responsible for the Jewish refugee problem by kicking 850,000 Jews out of Arab lands where they lived for hundreds, and even thousands, of years.

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