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Last Updated: Monday, 2 April 2007, 17:37 GMT 18:37 UK
Cool reception for Olmert 'offer'
Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert
Olmert had hinted earlier at possible concessions for peace
Israel must withdraw from Arab land before it gains Arab recognition, said a Saudi official in a first reaction to Israel's call for multilateral talks.

On Sunday Prime Minister Ehud Olmert suggested Saudi Arabia arrange a conference of "moderate" Arab states.

But a Saudi official, quoted by AP, said normalisation with Israel could only take place if Israel accepted an Arab peace plan revived last month.

Mr Olmert has given the plan - first proposed in 2002 - a guarded welcome.

The Saudi plan offers Israel normalisation of ties with Arab states if it pulls out of all Arab land it occupied in 1967 and agrees a "just solution" for Palestinian refugees.

Although the plan was initially rejected by Israel five years ago, Mr Olmert said last week his country was ready to make "big and painful" concessions to advance the peace process.

However, like past Israeli leaders, he dismissed a return of some four million Palestinian refugees and their descendants as out of the question for the Jewish state.

Mr Olmert called for a regional peace conference at a news conference in Jerusalem with the visiting German leader, Angela Merkel.

"If the Saudi king initiates a meeting of moderate Arab states and invites me and the head of the Palestinian Authority in order to present us the Saudi ideas, we will come to hear them and we will be glad to voice ours," Mr Olmert said.

Scepticism

A strongly worded cabinet statement in Riyadh said the Arabs had made their commitment to peace clear, and Israel should move to withdraw from Arab lands before any further gestures can be made.

SAUDI MIDDLE EAST PLAN
First adopted by Arab League in 2002
Calls for "full Israeli withdrawal from all the Arab territories occupied since June 1967"
Calls for Israel's "acceptance of an independent Palestinian State, with East Jerusalem as its capital"
All Arab states would establish "normal relations... with Israel" and "consider the Arab-Israeli conflict ended"
Calls for a "just solution to the Palestinian refugee problem"
The statement did not refer directly to the Olmert proposal, but an official said Israel must accept the Arab principles, launch negotiations with Palestinians and Syria to return their lands and create a Palestinian state.

"Then normalisation of ties can begin," the official is quoted as saying.

Mr Olmert's proposal was also greeted with scepticism among Israeli politicians and commentators.

One right-wing MP who supports Jewish settlements in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, called it "delusional".

The anti-settlement group Peace Now called it "cheap populism".

A diplomat quoted by Reuters news agency said Mr Olmert was trying to sidestep the issues contained in the Saudi plan, by making alternative proposals which he knows will not happen.

A political adviser to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, said it was a dodge to achieve normalisation "without paying the price".

Correspondents say Saudi Arabia's chilly response is not surprising. Although Saudi and Israeli officials have reportedly held secret talks, a public meeting would be seen as a huge concession to Israel, with nothing in return.

Mr Olmert is struggling with very low approval ratings among Israeli voters, with just 2% saying they trusted their prime minister in a recent opinion poll, and more than two-thirds saying they want him to resign.




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