meir sheetrit 88 298.
(photo credit: Courtesy Photo)
Acting Justice Minister Meir Sheetrit (Kadima) tried to jumpstart the stalled peace process on Wednesday with a call to hold talks with Saudi Arabia based on that country's 2002 plan that insists Israel must fully withdrawal to the pre-1967 border.
"I think that Israel should lead the efforts for peace in the Middle East," Sheetrit told The Jerusalem Post on Wednesday, as US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice arrived in the country following a visit to Saudi Arabia. He is the first Kadima minister to call for such talks.
Sep. 27 Editorial: Talking with the Saudis
Sheetrit, a former member of the Likud, told the Post he was not deterred by the plan's stance on Israel's permanent borders. He said he did not believe that even Saudi Arabia considered that a full withdrawal from the West Bank was possible. "They [Saudi Arabia] understand it cannot be done anymore," he said.
Like many officials in the government, Sheetrit believes there is wide international acceptance that certain highly populated areas in the West Bank will remain in Israel's hands.
What was important at this stage was to start talking peace with moderate Arab countries rather than focusing on whether there was full agreement regarding the text of the document, which was adopted by the Arab League in 2002 after it was proposed by Saudi Arabia, said Sheetrit.
The League promised to end the Arab-Israeli conflict if Israel agreed to an independent Palestinian state in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip that included east Jerusalem. It would also have to accept the solution to the Palestinian refugee issue outlined under United Nations Security Resolution 194, which allows for their return to Israel.
Sheetrit said that he had long supported talks on the basis of the Saudi plan and even made such a proposal to then-prime minister Ariel Sharon even though Sheetrit opposed letting Palestinian refugees return to Israel.
"I asked him to invite them [moderate Arab leaders] to Israel. Israel should set the international agenda on peace in the Middle East," said Sheetrit. He added that when he was in the Likud he was on the party's left.
Sheetrit said he firmly believed that peace would be achieved if an agreement could be worked out with countries such as Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan, and with Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas's Fatah movement.
"Let's talk. Lets take some steps. Let's negotiate. It will create an atmosphere in which there will be chemistry between Israel and moderate Arab countries," he said.
There should be no mediator from outside the region involved in these talks, said Sheetrit, who added that such negotiations should only involve moderate leaders from within the Middle East.
At the time, Sharon rejected his proposal, Sheetrit said, nor does he know if Prime Minister Ehud Olmert would approve the idea today. But he said he believed Israel remained committed to making large concessions for peace. "To achieve peace I am willing to pay any price, taking into consideration that I get peace back," said Sheetrit.
Kadima promised its voters to make every possible effort to set permanent borders and to achieve peace, said Sheetrit. "That was our commitment," said Sheetrit. "I cannot turn my back on peace.
I am still an optimist," he said.
Such a peace can only be achieved through a wide multilateral agreement with the Arab countries, said Sheetrit. He added that he had not been among those who supported unilateral moves such as the convergence plan advocated by his party before the war, in which Israel would withdraw from less-populated areas of the West Bank.
Sheetrit's call for talks with Saudi Arabia and other moderate Arab countries won support from Kadima MK Otniel Schneller, who lives in the West Bank and acts as liaison between the settlers and the Prime Minister's Office.
Like Sheetrit, Schneller cautioned that his support for talks with moderate Arab leaders should not be interpreted to mean he supported the plan itself, but rather reflected his profound belief that such talks were important in the pursuit of peace.
"I disagree with the plan 100 percent," he said. "But in principle, I am ready to talk with the Arab countries. It is in my interest to try and build a peace agreement with them."
While Sheetrit called for talks with moderates Arab leaders, he is opposed to negotiations with Hamas or Syria. Olmert has spoken against talks with Syria at this time and has urged ministers not to discuss this matter.
This did not stop Education Minister Yuli Tamir (Labor) from calling on Wednesday for Israel to talk with Syria. "Syria is the central player among the Middle Eastern countries. Therefore we should open negotiations with it immediately," said Tamir.
Science, Culture and Sports Minister Ophir Paz-Pines (Labor) said he did not believe Israel could talk with Syria while it was supporting terrorism and helping Hizbullah obtain arms.