(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
While the Prime Minister's Office had no formal reaction to the Arab League's land-and-refugees-for-peace initiative relaunched in Riyadh on Thursday, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert told The Jerusalem Post there is absolutely no wiggle room on the refugee issue.
Olmert reiterated that Israel would not accept the return to Israel of any refugees. It is "out of the question," he said. "I'll never accept a solution that is based on their return to Israel, any number."
The initiative adopted Thursday was the same one passed by the Arab League summit in Beirut in March 2002, commonly known as the Arab Peace Initiative. It is not, however, identical with the so-called Saudi initiative from a month earlier that did not mention the refugee issue.
Full text of Olmert interview
Olmert: The comptroller is out to get me
Asked if the Arab initiative could be the basis for talks, Olmert said, "The Saudis don't speak at all about [General Assembly] Resolution 194 [on the refugees]. The Saudi initiative looks better in this respect than the Arab initiative."
Olmert said that not only would Israel refuse to accept any refugees, it would also not recognize a "right of return."
In this regard he was even firmer than the Barak government, which in 2000 accepted then-US president Bill Clinton's parameters for an Israeli-Palestinian agreement that dealt with the refugee issue. The thrust of the Clinton parameters was that Israel would recognize the right of return in principle, but would have the right to determine how many - if any - refugees would be allowed to exercise that right.
Olmert, asked specifically if he accepted the Clinton parameters, replied simply: "No."
"I will not agree to accept any kind of Israel responsibility for the refugees. Full stop," he said. "It's a moral issue of the highest level. I don't think that we should accept any kind of responsibility for the creation of this problem."
At the same time, Olmert had warm words for Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah, calling him a "remarkable leader."
"The Saudi initiative, which he initiated when he was the crown prince, was very interesting. It indicated a greater sense of responsibility that Saudi Arabia is prepared to take in the politics of the Middle East," Olmert said.
Asked what made Abdullah "remarkable," Olmert said, "For many years, they [the Saudis] were not there. For many years, they were on the other side, perhaps on the extreme. And now they start to understand that Israel is a reality, that Israel is maybe not such a negative reality. And considering that Saudi Arabia is the most important Arab country, with enormous influence on everyone, don't take it lightly."
Olmert said he "would have loved to meet" Abdullah, but that he didn't "think such meetings are being scheduled."
Olmert's first formal reaction to the Arab League summit is not expected until Sunday's weekly cabinet meeting.
The Post's interview with Olmert took place on Wednesday morning, just as the Arab League summit convened, but was embargoed until Friday.
The Arab Peace Initiative accepted again in Riyadh on Thursday calls for a full Israeli withdrawal to the pre-1967 lines, including on the Golan, and the establishment of a Palestinian state with its capital in Jerusalem, in return for a peace agreement, an end to the conflict and normal relations. It also calls for a "just solution" to the Palestinian refugee problem to be agreed upon in accordance with UN Resolution 194. Israel has unsuccessfully tried over the last few weeks to get this article removed.
Sources in the Prime Minister's Office said Israel had not received the text of the initiative, and needed time to study it and to see if there were any changes in the text from the original, which Israel rejected. The officials advised patience, saying that with Pessah beginning on Monday evening, the process would likely take some time.
The Foreign Ministry, for its part, issued a statement that was very noncommittal. "Israel believes in peace, and seeks to establish peaceful and neighborly relations both with the Palestinian people and with all the states of the region," the statement said.
"Israel is sincerely interested in pursuing a dialogue with those Arab states that desire peace with Israel, this in order to promote a process of normalization and cooperation. Israel hopes that the Riyadh Summit will contribute to this effort."
Although not mentioning the refugee issue directly, the statement said that the peace process with the Palestinians was based on the two-state idea, with "each state addressing the national aspirations of its own people."
This is code for saying that Palestinians refugees should be absorbed in a Palestinian state, just as Jewish refugees were absorbed in the Jewish one.
In Riyadh, the Arab leaders created "working groups" to drum up support for the initiative from the US, UN and Europe. American allies Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan hope the smaller groups will be able to be more flexible in promoting the proposal to the West, despite the summit's rejection of changes in the refugee clauses.
The summit ended Thursday, however, without an agreement on who will participate in these working groups. Arab governments will work that out later, but membership could be a significant issue. Some want them to be restricted to the more moderate states - Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan and the United Arab Emirates - in hopes they can convince the US and Israel to come on board.
Syrian President Bashar Assad praised the decision to hold the next Arab League summit in Damascus.
Syria has sharply opposed any changes in the initiative. But in a summit where unity was the theme, Assad was muted in his insistence the Arabs stick to their original offer.
He said the summit was sending a "strong message to those forces eyeing our land and wealth... that we are an Arab nation that doesn't submit to oppression and refuses to bargain over its rights."
Meanwhile, Lebanese President Emile Lahoud lambasted Israel, saying the war last summer was a deliberate attempt to destroy Lebanon. He said the war did not start because of Hizbullah's kidnapping of IDF reservists Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev.
"Israel and its allies are trying to thwart the Saudi peace initiative and to empty it of it contents," he added.
Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas warned that war would break out if Israel rejected the Palestinian "hand of peace." During a speech at the summit, Abbas called on Israel to "share in the dream of peace" and not to miss the opportunity.
"Whoever wants to change the Saudi initiative wants to escape from a peace agreement," Abbas said.
Negotiators from the Quartet of Middle East mediators - the US, UN, European Union and Russia - hope to meet with Israel before the summer, EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana said. The Quartet will also hold talks with Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates in the next few weeks, he said.
The leaders painted the peace offer as the cornerstone of an effort to bring a new energy and unity to the Arab world. The leaders warned repeatedly of the possibility of Iraq's violence and sectarian divisions between Shi'ite and Sunni spreading.
Sunni Arab leaders are also worried over the increasing influence of Shi'ite Iran and possible fallout from its standoff with the West over its nuclear program.
The summit's final statement warned of "a dangerous and destructive arms race in the region."
The leaders called for greater cooperation among Arab nations to develop peaceful nuclear energy programs, seeking to prevent a monopoly of nuclear technology by Israel and Iran.
AP contributed to this report.