Diplomatic officials in Israel expressed concern on Monday that US restrictions on some components of a massive arms sale to Saudi Arabia could complicate matters when US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice visits Jeddah on Tuesday and presses the Saudis to play a more public role in promoting a Palestinian-Israeli peace process. Rice is scheduled to arrive in Israel on Wednesday directly from meetings with Saudi leaders in Jeddah. Just days before her trip to the region with US Defense Secretary Robert Gates, plans to sell some $20 billion of advanced arms - including satellite guided bombs, upgrades to jet fighters and new naval vessels - to Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states, were leaked to the press.
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The New York Times reported Saturday that the Pentagon was trying to ease Israeli concerns about the arms deal to Riyadh by asking the Saudis to accept "restrictions on the range, size and location of the satellite-guided bombs," including a commitment not to store the weapons at air bases close to Israeli territory.
Officials who asked not to be identified told The Jerusalem Post Monday that, due to links to different issues in the region, the US restrictions on the smart bombs might make it more difficult for Rice to rally the Saudis to play a more public role in supporting the Israeli-Palestinian diplomatic process.
Rice issued a statement Monday announcing, "a renewed commitment to the security of our key strategic partners in the region. To support our continued diplomatic engagement in the region, we are forging new assistance agreements with the Gulf States, Israel and Egypt."
"This effort will help bolster forces of moderation and support a broader strategy to counter the negative influences of al-Qaida, Hizbullah, Syria and Iran," she added.
Rice also announced that the US would soon include a new 10-year military assistance agreement with Israel and is also beginning discussions with Egypt on a 10-year, $13 billion military assistance agreement.
Rice did not spell out the size of the arms deal to Saudi Arabia, but said: "Further modernizing the Egyptian and Saudi Armed Forces and increasing interoperability will bolster our partners' resolve in confronting the threat of radicalism and cement their respective roles as regional leaders in the quest for Middle East peace and in ensuring Lebanon's freedom and independence. We plan to consult closely with Congress and our allies on the specifics of these agreements."
US President George W. Bush, in his Middle East address on July 16, called on the Arab nations "to take an active part in promoting peace negotiations.
"Relaunching the Arab League initiative was a welcome first step. Now Arab nations should build on this initiative by ending the fiction that Israel does not exist, stopping the incitement of hatred in their official media and sending cabinet-level visitors to Israel," Bush said.
While Rice and Gates have a full agenda for their talks in Saudi Arabia, including Iraq and Iran, implementing elements from Bush's speech will also be one of the goals.
Rice is scheduled to meet Tuesday in Sharm e-Sheikh with the foreign members of the six-member Gulf Cooperation Council that includes Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar, Oman, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates.
She will arrive in Israel Wednesday and is scheduled to meet separately in the afternoon with President Shimon Peres, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, Defense Minister Ehud Barak and Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni.
On Thursday, she is scheduled to spend the morning in Ramallah for talks with PA Chairman Mahmoud Abbas and PA Prime Minister Salaam Fayad.
The talks in Jerusalem are expected to concentrate on other aspects of the Bush speech, including his call for a regional meeting.
Bush called for an international meeting to be held this Fall, chaired by Rice, which would bring together representatives from nations that "support a two-state solution, reject violence, recognize Israel's right to exist and commit to all previous agreements between the parties." He said the purpose would be to review the progress that has been made toward building Palestinian institutions and providing diplomatic support for Israel and the Palestinians in their bilateral discussions.
Rice is expected to press the Gulf States to attend the conference, and it was one of the issues for discussion at Monday's meeting of Arab League foreign ministers in Cairo.
At that meeting, where Egyptian foreign minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit and his Jordanian counterpart Abdel Ilah al-Khatib gave a report on their visit to Israel last week and Israel's reaction to the Arab League's peace initiative, the Saudi Foreign Minister said the regional meeting needed to deal with final status issues such as the border, Jerusalem and the fate of Palestinian refugees. During Monday's meeting, Arab League chief Amr Moussa reported on the outcome of the group's efforts over the past two months to promote the Arab peace plan.
Monday's draft statement stressed that peace cannot be achieved unless Israel fully withdraws from all occupied Arab territories, solves the Palestinian refugee issue and allows the establishment of an independent Palestinian state with east Jerusalem as its capital. The ministers also called on the international community to exert pressure on Israel to release more than 10,000 Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails.
Also Monday, the Arab committee assigned to analyze the situation in the Gaza Strip following Hamas's military takeover of the territory held a meeting and issued a report on its activities. The group, which includes representatives from Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Qatar and Jordan, was formed during an emergency meeting of Arab foreign ministers in Cairo on June 15.
The committee said in a statement that it was continuing its work "to achieve a decisive resolution to the Palestinian crisis and to ensure the return of a normal situation to Gaza within the constitutional and legal framework."
Lebanese Prime Minister Fuad Saniora on Monday criticized the sharp increase in US defense aid to Israel, a rare rebuke against Washington by the Western-backed premier. The statement issued by Saniora's office said he expressed "displeasure, surprise and astonishment" when he learned of US plans to increase military aid to Israel by 25 percent, from $2.4b. to $3b. per year, guaranteed for 10 years. The statement also warned that military assistance to Israel encourages and increases "feelings of Arab and Islamic desperation and, consequently, strengthens and feeds extremist currents." He added that increasing military assistance to Israel "continues to disillusion Israelis into thinking they can sidestep the requirements of a just and comprehensive peace by maintaining military superiority," arguing that the money should have been spent on peaceful projects in the Middle East instead.
Also Monday, the state broadcasting company reported that Iran's foreign ministry spokesman criticized US plans to sell weapons to Saudi Arabia, saying it would undermine security in the Middle East.
"What the Persian Gulf region needs is stability and security," Mohammad Ali Hosseini was quoted as saying on the Web site of the state broadcasting company. "Americans have been trying to disturb it by selling weapons to the region."
AP contributed to this report.â€¢