Saud Al Faisal 224 88.
(photo credit: AP [file])
Saudi Arabia's foreign minister described as "encouraging" his talks with US officials about a proposed Mideast peace meeting, but stressed that success will be determined by commitments to tackle key final status issues, not whether Arab countries agree to attend.
The Bush administration, trying to revive long-stalled talks between Israel and the Palestinians, has proposed a November meeting to bring the two sides to the table, joined by other key players. It is eager to secure the participation of regional powerhouses like Egypt and Saudi Arabia, which has yet to sign a peace deal with the Jewish state.
Arab nations, however, fear that without a commitment to discuss thorny topics such as the status of Jerusalem and right of return of Palestinians, the meeting will develop into a photo opportunity that could do more harm than good. The meeting's agenda has yet to be set.
"It is not Saudi Arabia that puts conditions, or Saudi Arabia that is going to negotiate," Saudi Prince Saud al-Faisal told reporters Wednesday on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly. "Its presence there, or non-presence, is not the most significant issue."
Al-Faisal avoided committing his country's participation, and made clear that he is voicing the Arab position. But the veteran diplomat also sounded a decidedly optimistic tone following a meeting with Bush administration officials.
"We have been shown a canvas with some brushstrokes that has nice colors in them ... but we don't yet know if it is a portrait or a landscape that we are looking at," al-Faisal said in the round-table discussion held at a Manhattan hotel.
Based on the discussions with US officials, "there is a sense there is something new happening and this is encouraging" if it turns out to be true, he said.
Al-Faisal said that discussions indicated that "the intent is to look at the final status issue - the important issues, and not the peripheral issues. This is encouraging. This is what we have always asked for."
Al-Faisal's note of optimism was mirrored in the Middle East, where the leaders of Egypt and Jordan urged Palestinians to set aside their differences and work for peace, reiterating that the US-sponsored meeting was "an important opportunity for achieving tangible results," according to a statement released after the closed-door meeting in the Jordanian capital.
But they also repeated calls for "adequate preparations" and said the summit must tackle the key final status issues.
"We think there is hope that finally the right approach to peace is being undertaken," al-Faisal said.
He reiterated that the onus also lies on the Israelis to show their commitment to a comprehensive settlement and that they are willing to take confidence-building measures such as freezing settlement building in Palestinian areas.
"It will be curious for (Palestinian) President Abbas and the prime minister of Israel to be talking about peace and the return of Palestinian land while Israel continues to build more settlements," he said. "At least, a moratorium on the building of settlements will be a good signal to show serious intent."
Pressed about what it would take for the Saudis to attend, al-Faisal argued that it was the United States, not the kingdom, that carried sway with Israel, and described as "a little bit strange" the notion that Saudi participation would make Israel more willing to come.
"We have the experience of Madrid," he said, referring to the landmark 1991 peace conference which Saudi Arabia attended as observers. "We attended every international meeting that came out of the Madrid process ... and did that bring peace?"
"It changed nothing of the position of Israel whatsoever. On the contrary, it diverted from the important elements of peace, which is that Israel has to make peace" with the Palestinians, Lebanon and Syria, not Saudi Arabia.
While the US hopes that Saudi participation will put the kingdom on a path to recognizing Israel, al-Faisal said this possibility is already outlined in the Arab peace initiative, which offers peace in exchange for territory.
"Recognition comes, but comes after peace, not before peace," al-Faisal said.