Rice to visit Saudis before Israel

Talks in Israel to focus on Saudi peace plan; Egypt, Syria nix changes to initiative.

jp.services2 (photo credit: )
(photo credit: )
US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice may make a stopover in Saudi Arabia before the Arab League summit starts there on March 28, either just before or after her visit to Israel and the PA, diplomatic officials said on Tuesday. Although the State Department has not released Rice's itinerary, she is expected in Israel around March 24 for talks that will likely focus on the Saudi initiative. Channel 2 reported that Rice will hold discussions with Jordanian, Egyptian and Saudi officials in Egypt, and that there may be an attempt to put together a summit involving Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and Jordan's King Abdullah II. Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni is scheduled to meet with Rice in Washington on Wednesday, and - together with Defense Minister Amir Peretz, who is also in the US - to hold a meeting with new UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon. Ban is also expected to visit Israel later this month. The Arab League summit, and the expectation that it will relaunch some kind of diplomatic initiative, has turned into the focus of high-level diplomatic activity in the region. Egypt and Syria echoed on Tuesday the Arab League's refusal last week to amend the peace proposal at the Riyadh summit. "We have the Arab peace plan and we are committed to it as a whole. Talk about amending it is baseless," Syrian Vice President Farouk a-Sharra said Tuesday after talks with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. Mubarak's spokesman Suleiman Awwad said Egypt also rejected Israeli demands for amending the plan. The Saudis strenuously deny that there is any contact with Israeli officials over the summit. The Saudi Foreign Ministry issued a statement on Tuesday that "categorically denied reports carried by some news media which said that a meeting was recently held between Saudi Ambassador to the US Adel bin Ahmad al-Jubeir and an Israeli official in Washington." According to the statement, "These reports are baseless and fabricated." The Jordan Times, meanwhile, reported that Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Abul Gheit and Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal were expected in Amman for talks on regional issues with Abdullah. The paper quoted Jordanian government spokesman Nasser Judeh as saying that this was part of "the three countries' efforts to revive the Middle East peace process." "The coming days will witness active Jordanian and Arab political and diplomatic moves," he was quoted as saying. The paper quoted an "official source" as saying that the Riyadh summit will reiterate the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative as a basis for a future solution. Israel has made clear that although it views positively some elements of the Saudi initiative from February 2002, which called in general terms for an Israeli withdrawal to the pre-1967 lines in exchange for normalization of ties with the Arab world, it had deep reservations about the Arab Peace Initiate adopted in Beirut a month later that included a clause calling for a "just solution to the Palestinian refugee problem to be agreed upon in accordance with UN [General Assembly] Resolution 194." In Jordan, Foreign Minister Abdul Ilah al-Khatib met with US Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs David Welch. US officials said there were no plans for Welch to visit Israel at this time. And in a related development, EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana is expected to hold talks in Damascus on Wednesday with Syrian President Bashar Assad. Solana was in Beirut on Tuesday. Israeli officials have said Jerusalem opposes Solana's visit to Damascus because it lends legitimacy to a government that is supporting terrorism throughout the region. This will be Solana's first visit to Damascus in two years.