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Last Updated: Saturday, 31 March 2007, 08:51 GMT 09:51 UK
Israelis wary of Arab peace plan
By Martin Patience
BBC News, Netanya

Aftermath of Netanya bombing - March 2002
Memories linger of Netanya's nightmare in March 2002
Almost five years ago to the day, Dovrat Sharabbi settled down with her grandparents to enjoy a Passover dinner.

As they were halfway through their meal news broke that there had been an explosion in their home town of Netanya, a 20-minute drive away.

A Palestinian suicide bomber had walked into the Park Hotel in the town detonating his explosives. Thirty people, mainly elderly, were killed in the attack.

In Israel there was outrage particularly as some of the victims were Holocaust survivors.

On that same day, Arab leaders met in Beirut and formally adopted a Saudi peace initiative, offering Israel full recognition if it withdrew from all the land occupied in 1967.

The Arabs always say that they will make peace, but it's only peace on paper
Netanya shopkeeper Rivin Sadian
The plan demanded the establishment of a Palestinian state and also a "just solution to the Palestinian refugee problem", based on people returning to their homes or the payment of appropriate compensation.

This week, the plan was reaffirmed at the Arab League summit held in the Saudi capital, Riyadh.

No trust

But for Dovrat - whose friend's father was killed in the Park Hotel blast - the period of five years has done little to change her views.

"I want to believe that it can happen, that if we withdrew to 1967 that there would be peace," she said, sitting on a grassy knoll overlooking Netanya's thin stretch of beach.

"But there is no trust here. I don't trust the Arabs to deliver even if we did withdraw."

Across the Israeli political spectrum there have been encouraging noises about the initiative - and not just from left-wing parties.

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, leader of the centrist Kadima party, lauded the Arab peace move as "revolutionary" in Israeli press reports, although he stressed he did not accept it in its entirety.

Refugee question

The Israeli Housing Minister, Meir Sheetrit, told the BBC that he would be willing to go to Saudi Arabia today if allowed.

"I think we should break the ice," he said.

But for most Israelis, Palestinian refugees returning to land which is now inside Israel is a non-starter.

If all the refugees were to return to Israel, there would cease to be a Jewish majority in the Jewish state.

Parts of modern Netanya stand on ruins of pre-1948 village Um Khalid
Former Israeli Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom said that this single demand meant that there was nothing really to talk about.

"The Arabs should know that they should abandon their dream to destroy the state of Israel from inside," he said.

Some Israeli politicians and analysts, however, see the very fact the Saudi initiative was reaffirmed shows that there is now a marked difference in atmosphere.

Five years ago, the Palestinian uprising was at its height.

But last summer's conflict between Israel and Hezbollah changed the regional dynamics.


Israel and many of the Arab states - including Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan - worry about Iran's increasing influence in the region, particularly if it acquires nuclear weapons.

"Basically what the Saudis are telling the Iranians is that we beg to differ with you," said Aluf Benn, the diplomatic editor of the Israeli daily newspaper Haaretz.

"When the Iranians say that Israel has no place in the map, the Saudis are saying we think Israel, within different borders, does belong in the region."

But while there may be enthusiastic murmurings in government circles and elsewhere, people in Netanya seem more downbeat.

"The Arabs always say that they will make peace," said Rivin Sadian, 26, standing in front of his souvenir shop looking out for tourists.

"But it's only peace on paper; it's not peace for real."

Taxi-driver Samuel Coen, 35, was only slightly more optimistic.

"There cannot be real peace between us and the Arabs," he said.

"The best we can hope for is that we agree to live here and they agree to live over there."

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