Efforts are under way to get the Saudis to join future meetings like the Israeli, Palestinian Authority, Jordanian and Egyptian summit to be held in Sharm e-Sheikh on Monday, The Jerusalem Post has learned. Prime Minister Ehud Olmert confirmed on Thursday evening that he will attend the summit, which will include Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, Jordanian King Abdullah II and Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas.
PM to propose releasing tax funds to PA
Olmert, at a Keren Hayesod conference in Haifa, said the purpose of the summit was to "jointly work to create the platform that may lead to a new beginning between us and the Palestinians."
Olmert, who returned from Washington on Wednesday, said that US President George W. Bush supported the summit, and that Bush "wants to realize, while he is in office, the dream of creating a Palestinian state that lives alongside the State of Israel in peace and security." Bush's term expires in January 2009.
One senior source in the Prime Minister's Office said that although there was no possibility of expanding the four-nation forum at the present time, Israel was interested in getting other "moderate" regimes involved in similar initiatives in the future. Saudi involvement "is what we are looking for," the source said.
By hosting the summit, Egypt has thrown its weight clearly behind Fatah and Abbas in their battle with Hamas, and will make it more difficult for Cairo to mediate - as it has done in the past - between Hamas and Fatah.
The purpose behind the summit, said the senior source in the Prime Minister's Office, was for the moderates to "cooperate and define the agenda, rather than allowing the extremists do so."
The meeting will be in lieu of a Quartet meeting that was originally planned for Cairo on Tuesday, in which Olmert, Abbas, Mubarak and Abdullah were expected to take part, alongside representatives from the US, Russia, EU and the UN. The Quartet meeting has been moved to New York instead.
"It is more important for the players directly involved in the situation to meet at this time, than to have outside elements do so," the source said. "These are the four parties directly impacted by what is happening right now, and what is needed is a different level of cooperation between them."
Although no details of the agenda were provided, the talks - according to Israel officials - are to focus on the ramifications of the last two weeks in Gaza and how to strengthen the moderate elements inside the PA. Among the technical issues expected to be discussed are how to transfer humanitarian aid to Gaza, and what steps to take on the Philadelphi Corridor between Egypt and Gaza to clamp down on the arms smuggling.
At its meeting on Sunday, the cabinet is expected to approve the transfer of all or part of the more than half-a-billion dollars worth of frozen tax revenue to the PA, and Olmert will most likely bring this decision to the summit as an indication of how Israel is willing to help the new PA government.
The idea for the summit was first raised last week when Olmert spoke on the phone with Mubarak. It is not yet clear whether Olmert and Abbas will hold a private meeting in Sharm.
In a related development, Syrian officials continued to keep the idea of talks with Israel on the agenda, even as the US has said it will not mediate talks between Damascus and Jerusalem, and Israel said that Damascus is still not serious about wanting peace.
"We see no change in the Syrian position," said Olmert's spokeswoman Miri Eisin. "The Israeli position is consistent - we want peace, but we think the Syrians are only interested in the industry of peace."
Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallem was quoted Thursday at a meeting with EU officials in Damascus as saying Damascus was "more than ready" to renew peace talks with Israel.
"If the Israelis decide to renew the negotiations, they will find a willing partner," he said.
The UN's special Middle East envoy Michael Williams told Olmert at a meeting in New York on Sunday that the Syrians were interested in US-mediated talks, an idea that both Israel and the US rejected.
Bush, before his meeting with Olmert on Tuesday, said that Israel did not need US mediation to talk with Syria. Referring to Olmert, he said, "This man is plenty capable of conducting his own negotiations without mediation."
Following Bush's comments, Syrian Vice President Farouk Shara said that "Israel and the United States do not want to make peace either with the Palestinians or with Syria. The American president himself said recently that he did not want peace with Syria."
Shara, talking to foreign reporters in Damascus, denied there was a secret channel of communication with Israel, saying Damascus had no interest in secret contacts "because such contacts aim to make concessions, and Syria is not ready for that."