Prime Minister Ehud Olmert responded on Thursday to the conclusion of the Arab League summit by saying that the summit "must be taken seriously." "The comments made by the participants of the summit were significant, as well as the atmosphere and direction taken," said Olmert, who spoke at a reception for the Passover holiday. Israel Radio quoted Olmert as saying: "The Middle-East is going through a serious change, which has been sharpened since the Second Lebanon War. This process has brought about a change in the Arab frame of mind. Israel is no longer considered their biggest problem. This is a revolutionary thought." Earlier Thursday, Arab leaders called on Israel to accept their land-for-peace offer and open direct negotiations with the Arabs, hoping to give a new push to the long-stalled Mideast peace process. The gathering of Arab kings, emirs and presidents also expressed fears of a nuclear arms race in the Middle East as they ended a two-day summit in Riyadh that tried to tackle the numerous crises in the region, including the bloodshed in Iraq and the increasing power of Iran.
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Unlike past summits that at times saw overt feuds break out, the gathering showed unusual public unity as it revived the peace offer, which it first made in 2002 only to meet rejection from Israel.
But still unknown is how the Arabs will persuade Israel to accept the initiative, which the United States and Europe hope can help build momentum for a resumption of peace talks. Israel has said it could accept the offer with some changes, but the Arab leaders refused to amend it.
Instead, they created "working groups" that will seek to drum up support for the deal from the US, UN and Europe. American allies Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan hope the smaller groups will be able to be more flexible in promoting the offer to win acceptance, despite the summit's rejection of changes.
Syrian President Bashar Assad praised the decision to hold the next Arab League summit in Damascus.
Syria has sharply opposed any changes in the initiative. But in a summit where unity was the theme, Assad was muted in his insistence the Arabs stick to their original offer.
He said the summit was sending a "strong message to those forces eyeing our land and wealth ... that we are an Arab nation that doesn't submit to oppression and refuses to bargain over its rights."
Meanwhile, Lebanese President Emile Lahoud lambasted Israel, saying that the war last summer was a planned act to destroy Lebanon. He said that the war did not break out because of the kidnapping of IDF reservists Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev.
"Israel and its allies are trying to thwart the Saudi peace initiative and to empty it of it contents," he added.
Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas warned that a war would break out in the region if Israel rejects the Palestine "hand of peace."
During a speech at the Arab summit, Abbas called on Israel to "share in the dream of peace" and not miss the opportunity.
"Whoever wants to change the Saudi initiative want to escape from a peace agreement," added Abbas.
Israeli government spokeswoman Miri Eisin said Israel sees the "initiative as interesting and as the possible basis for a dialogue. We're not being more specific than that because we need to really sit down and study it."
Jordan's King Abdullah II called on the United States to push Israel to accept the offer. "Peace between Arab states and Israel cannot be reached unless Israel deals positively and seriously with the Arab initiative," he said in a speech to the gathering. "That is the real challenge for the leaders of the region and the world, especially the United States."
"Israel must choose between two options: to live in a cycle of constant war and increasing hatred or to accept the option of peace and co-existence," Abdullah said.
US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and UN chief Ban Ki-moon both toured the region ahead of the summit, trying to build momentum for the peace process and the Arab initiative.
Negotiators from the Quartet of Mideast mediators - the US, UN, European Union and Russia - hope to meet with Israel for the first time before the summer, EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana said. The Quartet will also hold talks with Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates in the next few weeks, he said.
The leaders painted the peace offer as the cornerstone of an attempt to being a new energy and unity to the Arab world in facing the region's mounting crises. The leaders warned repeatedly of the possibility of Iraq's violence and sectarian divisions between Shiite and Sunni Muslims spreading. The Sunni Arab leaders are also worried over the increasing influence of mainly Shiite Iran and possible fallout from its standoff with the West over its nuclear program.
The summit's final statement warned of "a dangerous and destructive arms race in the region." The leaders called for greater cooperation among Arab nations to develop their own peaceful nuclear energy programs, seeking to prevent a monopoly of nuclear technology by Israel and Iran.
In a final resolution approved by the summit, the Arab leaders called on Israel "to accept the Arab peace initiative and seize the available opportunity to resume direct and serious negotiations on all tracks." It said the initiative was the "rightful framework" for achieving peace.
The initiative offers Israel recognition and permanent peace with all Arab countries in return for Israeli withdrawal from lands captured in the 1967 Middle East war. It also calls for setting up a Palestinian state with east Jerusalem as its capital and a "just solution" to the issue of Palestinian refugees forced out of lands in what is now Israel.
Israel rejects a full withdrawal from the West Bank and east Jerusalem, and it strongly opposes the influx of large numbers of Palestinian refugees into the Jewish state. It seeks changes to water down the provisions on refugees in particular.
The summit ended Thursday without an agreement on who will participate in the working groups due to promote the peace initiative. Arab governments will work that out later, but membership could be a significant issue. Some want them to be restricted to the more moderate states Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan and the United Arab Emirates in hopes they can convince the US and Israel to come on board.