A Syrian source slammed on Monday Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's call to Arab leaders to hold a joint conference to further peace negotiations. The unnamed Syrian source, quoted by the Saudi paper Al-Watan, said that Olmert's insistence on thorough groundwork before sitting to the negotiation table, was indicative that Israel was "trying to use the pretext of delaying talks by a few years to actually avoid them." Mouhammad al-Madhoun, bureau chief to Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh, also said that Olmert's statements were "an attempt to empty the Arab peace initiative from its content, because of its refusal to recognize the Palestinian right of return." Full text of Olmert's 'Post' interview for Pessah:
'It has not been the easiest year...'
On Sunday night, Olmert made his first public reaction to the Arab League summit's relaunching of its 2002 peace initiative last week, inviting the heads of the Arab states to a conference where these and other ideas would be discussed.
"I am proposing a meeting of all the heads of the Arab states, including - obviously - the Saudi king, who I see as a very important leader, to have discussions with us," Olmert said at a Jerusalem press conference with visiting German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
He said it was clear that each side would be able to bring its positions to such a meeting, alluding to Israel's stance that the Arab peace initiative was a starting point for negotiations, not the finish line.
Olmert's invitation was in line with the careful position that Jerusalem has charted since the Arab League readopted its land-and-refugees-for-peace plan last week, stressing its positive aspects and not rejecting it out of hand as it did in 2002 in order not to be cast in the naysayer's role.
Olmert said there was a "significant gap" between the Israeli and Arab positions, but that "in a correct, responsible and careful process we can move forward toward negotiations."
He said he agreed with Merkel, who argued that declarations like those issued in Riyadh could not come in place of negotiations between the sides.
"And I am saying to the Arab leaders, that if the Saudi King will initiate a meeting of the moderate Arab states, and invite me and the chairman of the Palestinian Authority, and present us the Saudi ideas, we will come to hear them and be happy to articulate our ideas as well," the prime minister said.
Olmert said it was important that the Saudis had decided to take an active role in finding a solution to the conflict.
"I think that the change in the way of thinking, the willingness to accept the State of Israel as a fact and to argue about the characteristics of a future solution, is something that I can't but appreciate," he said.
Olmert, during the press conference, denied statements made recently by elements in Iran regarding a coordinated US-Israeli attack on Iran allegedly planned for this summer.
Olmert said that a plan whereby the US would attack Iran in the summer, and where Israel would at the same time attack Syria and Hizbullah, is "a plan we don't know of. It is baseless, and an unfounded rumor with no foundation."
Israel was not planning an attack, does not want an attack, and "I hope very much that no one makes a miscalculation because of claims that are completely baseless," he said.
Merkel, who spoke positively of the Arab summit's resolutions, also said they needed to be seen as a starting point for further negotiations.
Merkel reiterated the Quartet's demand that the new PA government recognize Israel, renounce terrorism and accept previous Israel-Palestinian agreements to gain international legitimacy.
She also said the release of kidnapped soldier Cpl. Gilad Schalit was a necessary step in moving the process forward, and in a diplomatic manner admonished PA Chairman Mahmoud Abbas for telling her in a recent meeting in Berlin that Schalit would be released shortly, and then not making good on that promise.
Germany has been actively involved in efforts to secure Schalit's release, as well as that of kidnapped reservists Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev. When asked whether Regev and Goldwasser were alive, she could only reply that Germany had no information about their condition but was continuing to work on their behalf.
Merkel met with the families of the kidnapped soldiers during the day.
Her 36-hour visit to Israel and the Palestinian Authority included a meeting in the morning with Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, who, according to a statement her office put out, expressed Israel's disappointment in Abbas, especially regarding his inability to bring about Schalit's release, and in his Fatah movement's joining a unity government with Hamas that did not accept the Quartet's three principles.
Livni called on the European Union, which Merkel currently heads as its rotating president, to back the position that Palestinian refugees should return to a future Palestinian state, and not to Israel. A firm European position on this issue would have an important impact on the Arab world, she said.
Following her meeting with Livni, Merkel went to Yad Vashem where - accompanied by Livni - she toured the museum and participated in a brief ceremony in the Hall of Remembrance. She left a message in the memorial guest book that read, "Humanity grows out of responsibility for the past."
She then went to the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, where she received an honorary doctorate, and then on to Ramallah for a meeting with Abbas.
Her trip here, her second Middle East trip since Germany took over the rotating presidency of the EU in January, is part of a regional tour that includes Jordan and Lebanon.