Saudis urge right of return for Palestinians

Official cites "sour note" in closed session; Barak, Livni urge Arab world to seize the moment.

saudi abdullah 224.88 (photo credit: AP [file])
saudi abdullah 224.88
(photo credit: AP [file])
An immediate sour note was sounded at the summit talks here on Tuesday, an Israeli official said, when the Saudi foreign minister told the closed afternoon session that Palestinian refugees should be allowed to return to their original homes. Saud al-Faisal, the Israeli official said, listed the core "final status" issues that have to be resolved in the accelerated negotiating process launched here, but specified the need for a "right of return" to the refugees‚ a demand that was not specified in the public address by Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, nor contained in the Arab League peace plan. The afternoon talks, at which the numerous participants from attending countries had the opportunity to talk, were held off camera, and it was impossible to independently verify the Israeli official's report. Defense Minister Ehud Barak was understood to have been in the room at the time, but to have chosen not to respond. In a text of Barak's speech that was released before he delivered it, Barak called on Israel's Arab neighbors "to seize the moment. And to our Palestinian neighbors, I say: Bid farewell to violence." He said security was crucial to the success of the new effort. "Violence and terror by extreme forces repeatedly rocked Israeli-Palestinian peace-making and continue to threaten it today. If those extreme forces are not or cannot be checked by Palestinian governmental forces, Israel has to check them in order to defend its citizens. This is neither in Israel's interest nor, I believe, in Palestinian interests and it is certainly not conducive to peace." Barak recalled leading the abortive Camp David process as prime minister seven years ago, and "our yearning and hope for peace did not wane ever since, despite waves of violence and terror; I therefore fully support this process and I will do my utmost to make it succeed." He said he believed "that we should go about peace-making like we go about constructing a building, namely lay solid foundations first before putting up the floors. This, in my view, is the true essence of capacity and institution building," and it was essential, he said, "in order to make any political horizon materialize." What was needed on the Palestinian side were "professional security forces capable of stamping out terrorism and lawlessness and dismantling terror infrastructure; functioning judiciary and legal systems; democratic institutions including a modern electoral system; economic development and growth engines; and a strong civil society," Barak said. In her speech, also released before she had delivered it to the closed session, Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni said she was not seeking to argue with the Palestinians and the Arab world "over whose cause is more just." She stressed that she personally believed in the rights of the Jewish people "to the whole land." But what was needed now, she said, was "to think of another right - the right of our children to live in peace and mutual respect." Livni chided the Arab world for having rejected the initial division of mandatory Palestine into two states, and urged it to accept the two-state solution today. The Palestinian state, she stressed, should constitute the homeland to all the Palestinian people "wherever they are" - a position essentially rejecting any "right of return" to Israel - just as Israel had come to constitute a homeland for the entire Jewish nation. Making a success of the revived process, she went on, was dependent on the ability of the leaderships "to deal with extremists and terror" - a task in which, she said, the international community and especially the Islamic world had a central role to play. With Gaza controlled by a terror group, Hizbullah preventing stability in Lebanon and Iran threatening the entire region, "this is a decisive moment," she said. It was a moment to take sides, and it was no longer a case of Israel on one side and the Palestinians on the other. On one side, she said, were those who had come to Annapolis, and on the other were "those who did not come here; those who support terror and radical groups; those who invoke God to sow hatred and send children to be killed." Attending the conference, however, she stressed, was not sufficient. Peace was not just a matter of "an agreement in exchange for land. Peace means an end to incitement, an end to support for terror and concerted action against terror, an end to arms smuggling, and the dismantling of terror hierarchies." And it was the job of leadership to confront those challenges, and galvanize public support for a change of direction. She also said all sides would benefit from normalized Israeli-Arab ties, and stressed how constructive a message a simple handshake would send to the watching Arab public. If other Arab nations were essentially shaking Israel's hand, then Abbas and Fayad would not be perceived as traitors for doing so. And support for a new way forward in a skeptical Israel, battered by terror, would grow too, she said. US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, introducing the session, said that for the Annapolis process to succeed would "require the sustained and vigorous support of both regional states and the international community more generally. Providing that support is one of the main purposes that brings us all here." She then set out the frameworks for the closed session of talks, which continued late into the day: "In our first session, we will consider how regional states and the international community can increase the prospects for success of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. In our second session, we will consider how regional states and the international community can support the Palestinian Authority in its efforts to build the effective institutions of a democratic state. Finally, in our third session of the day, we will discuss how our renewed efforts for Israeli-Palestinian peace can also stimulate positive progress toward a comprehensive, just, and lasting peace between Arabs and Israelis." Rice stressed that "in all of our discussions, we who are gathered here today must affirm, as President Bush said, that Annapolis is the beginning, not the end, of a renewed effort to realize the two-state vision of peace and security. So we must be prepared to commit to the work of tomorrow with equal energy and urgency as we approach the work of today. We must all be ready to rise to our responsibilities for the sake of peace, and to ensure that regional and international support is forthcoming."