Israel is gearing up for a diplomatic campaign that will paint the Arab world as the recalcitrant party if it does not drop the article in the Arab peace initiative that calls for the "right of return" for Palestinian refugees, The Jerusalem Post has learned. Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has been saying for months that there were positive elements in the Saudi peace initiative, which preceded the Arab initiative by a month and did not include a clause calling for the "right of return" for Palestinian refugees. On Thursday, he reiterated that elements of the plan were acceptable to Israel. The proposal will be taken up at the Arab League summit scheduled for Wednesday and Thursday in Riyadh.
'US wants Saudi peace plan amended'
"I am the one who said the Saudi initiative was interesting, and that there are elements that I would be willing to accept and that it could be a basis for contact between us and moderate Arab elements," Olmert said.
The Saudi initiative from February 2002 calls for a full Israeli withdrawal to the pre-1967 lines in exchange for normalization of relations. The Arab peace initiative, launched in Beirut a month later, added the clause regarding the refugees.
"This government will not miss out on an opportunity to engage in talks with our enemies," Olmert said. "This includes making concessions. We will maneuver responsibly and with care." Israel was willing to make "sweeping, painful and tough concessions," he added.
In the last few weeks - through comments such as those by Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni in the Palestinian press about the need to amend the initiative to make it palatable to Israel, and through quiet diplomacy involving the US - there have been attempts to get the Arab League members to drop the refugee clause.
One senior government official said if the League refused to amend the plan, reconfirming it with the knowledge that it is something Israel could not accept, then Israel would embark on a campaign to cast them in the role of naysayers who once again missed an opportunity.
Arab diplomats said the US has quietly joined Israel in urging Arab leaders to reformulate the plan, even as key Arab diplomats - including Arab League Secretary-General Amr Moussa - have publicly come out against the idea.
Three Arab diplomats in different Arab capitals said Washington has been pressing for changes to place the offer in line with the road map peace plan. The road map does not deal much with the refugee issue, beyond calling for an "agreed, just, fair and realistic solution to the refugee issue." The road map also does not specify the borders - as the Arab peace initiative does - of a future Palestinian state.
Meanwhile, Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas's comments Thursday night in a Channel 1 interview that the release of kidnapped Cpl. Gilad Schalit was near were dismissed as meaningless by senior Israeli officials.
Abbas said a "framework" was agreed upon with Olmert and the Egyptians, and the process was moving along "quickly."
"I hope his release will come quickly," he said. "I believe now it is accepted and everybody is working toward that."
But Israeli government officials were extremely skeptical, with one senior source saying Abbas has been saying this for six months, and in his last meeting with Olmert earlier this month he said Schalit would be released before the establishment of a Palestinian unity government.
"Do me a favor," the source said. "He has no power to do it. Who is he trying to impress?"
The official said the Channel 1 interview was part of a campaign Abbas is waging "to show that he is still the good guy, that despite the new government he is still moderate."
Also on Thursday, Olmert faced an angry protester at a speech he gave in Tel Aviv to youth who are volunteering on kibbutzim before going into the army.
During the questions and answers following the speech, Danny Valla, from Kibbutz Yotvata near Eilat, shouted at Olmert, "What is with the three kidnapped soldiers? My son was almost with them. My youngest son will go into the army next year. I was a fighter who was left behind enemy lines. If you were prime minister I would still be there. What are you doing to return Gilad Schalit, Eldad Regev and Udi Goldwasser before the Pessah Seder?"
Olmert kept his composure and responded: "We know who is holding them. They are not in a place where Israel just pushes a button, and - presto - they appear smiling and thankful for all our efforts."
"There is not a single day we are not dealing with the subject," Olmert said. "We will explore any avenue. It usually takes years and we pay a high price to release prisoners. I hope this time will be different. I cannot elaborate on the subject."
US President George W. Bush, meanwhile, emphatically backed Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's peacemaking efforts, on the eve of her visit here. She is scheduled to arrive on Sunday.
Bush, noting Rice's planned departure Friday for the region, said, "Peace in the Middle East is a priority for this administration." He stressed his "strong approval" for Rice's work to "move the process forward."
Bush called heads of state in the Middle East to help pave the way for progress, but acknowledged: "It's not easy to get all parties headed in the right direction." Still, he said, all the stakeholders - Israelis, Palestinians and their Arab neighbors - need "to work for a solution that will lead to peace, and that is a Palestinian state living side by side with Israel in peace and security."
Bush made his remarks after a meeting he and Rice held with leaders of an American reconstruction team working in Iraq. His comments came at the end of a week in which differences emerged between the United States's and Israel's approach to dealing with the new Palestinian unity government.
Israel has said it will not hold "political horizon" talks with Abbas, while the US said it would continue to do so. Israel has also said it would have no contact with any of the ministers in the new PA government, while the US has expressed a willingness to meet with non-Hamas ministers.
Hilary Leila Krieger and AP contributed to this report.