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Saudi foreign minister sees consensus to revive Middle East peace process

Friday, September 22, 2006

By JOHN DANISZEWSKI and

UNITED NATIONS -- Arab countries have reached a "very significant" consensus after the recent war in Lebanon that there must be a new start with fresh ideas to the Middle East peace process, Saudi Arabia's foreign minister said Thursday.

Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal of Saudi Arabia and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, in separate interviews around the meeting of the U.N. General Assembly, spoke of the urgency for an "end game" that could give a glimmer of hope to both sides in the Middle East by resurrecting a process bogged down for three years.

At a Security Council meeting later Thursday, Bahrain's Foreign Minister Shaikh Khalid Bin Ahmed Al-Khalifa called for initial negotiations between Israel and the Arabs with a concrete timeframe, as well as a report from U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan on the best way to hold those negotiations.

He reiterated the long-standing Arab demands that a final settlement include Israel's full withdrawal from the Palestinian territory, resolve the problem of Palestinian refugees, and create a Palestinian state with its capital in Jerusalem.

"We have in the past witnessed the horrors of war; however, our peoples are today determined not to see further such horrors," Shaikh Khalid said. "We have a good chance now to obtain peace and should not allow it to slip away."

Lavrov said the mood is not limited to Arab countries; agreement also is growing in Russia and among other outside power brokers overseeing the peace process that it must be re-energized to stop more problems from developing.

The solution lies in working for a comprehensive pact that would cover differences between Israel and the Palestinians, the Syrians and the Lebanese, he said.

Unless the world acts quickly to increase hope among Arab youth, Lavrov warned, it could lose a whole generation in the region to extremism.

"We have found for the first time probably a consensus that is very significant about the need of restarting the peace process," al-Faisal said, speaking in a hotel suite overlooking Park Avenue.

His emphasis on consensus was the strongest statement yet by an Arab nation on the need to revive efforts to end the Arab-Israeli conflict, and was echoed by the foreign ministers who attended the ministerial meeting of the Security Council.

Several ministers backed a promise from Israeli and Palestinian leaders to re-engage in dialogue and open a permanent channel for possible talks.

"We continue to urge all parties to foster a positive and hopeful atmosphere in which those talks might take place," Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said.

However, in a sign of continued divisions, the 15 nations on the Security Council were too divided to agree on a unified stance that could be presented in a formal statement.

Since the end of Israeli-Hezbollah fighting in Lebanon on Aug. 14, the leaders of Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Syria have been saying now is the time for a new push in the peace process to prevent future conflicts.

Bahrain, which represented the Arab League at the Security Council meeting of foreign ministers, was urging it take "stock of the past failures that prevented peace from happening and urging a new look and approach to the peace process," the Saudi prince said.

The Arab League viewpoint is that any revitalized talks "concentrate on the important issues, rather than the process itself -- in other words, the final status negotiation elements like the border, Jerusalem, Palestinian rights and so forth."

Faisal said he was encouraged that President Bush is showing a "new concentration" on the Middle East peace process. But he said Washington still has trouble being seen in the Arab world as an honest broker.

"There is perceived inclination on the part of the U.S. to forgive everything that Israel does and take to task anything that the Palestinians do," he said. But he looked forward to the day when attitudes toward the United States would soften.

"There is, particularly during this session of the United Nations, no lack of interest on the part of the president about the Middle East peace process. His whole speech, as a matter of fact, was on the Middle East," he said, referring to Bush's speech to the General Assembly on Tuesday. "And I think that shows a new concentration on not only the process but I hope substance of peace."

Washington increasingly is coming to the view that peace between Palestinians and Israelis will help its other interests in the region, including fighting terrorism, he added.

Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister who was interviewed in a room just off the General Assembly hall, said he regards the timing of the Arab initiative as "very important," coming shortly after the eruption of war between Israel and the Hezbollah guerrilla movement in Lebanon and at a moment when the trends elsewhere in the region were "worrying."

"The war in Lebanon clearly showed that force cannot resolve problems in the Middle East and force always gets a forceful answer," Lavrov said.

However, Lavrov pointed out that getting any process started again would be difficult, in part because of Israel's need to first get back soldiers abducted by Hamas and Hezbollah fighters in July. The incidents sparked a new round of Arab-Israeli fighting in both Lebanon and Gaza that killed more than 1,000 in a four-week war.

"It is a very emotional issue for them," Lavrov said, referring to Israel's concern for the missing soldiers. "It is an issue which is in the center of their domestic politics."

He said that ways were being discussed to resolve the problem, and that those ways might also "pave the way to better conditions for political dialogue."

Action should not be delayed, he said.

"We are risking to lose a generation in the Middle East," he said. "A couple of more years, and I am afraid this generation would be totally disappointed in any promises of peace and would be much more susceptible to another way of thinking and acting," he warned.

The Russian minister said that both the Quartet of countries involved in sponsoring Middle East peace attempts and the Arab League share the idea that there must be an "end game" that would give both Israelis and Arabs a goal for a full and comprehensive peace involving Israel's conflicts with the Palestinians, the Syrians and the Lebanese.

"What we and they are talking about, and what is being proposed, is the need while resolving the immediate problems ... to agree that we have an end game as they say, a horizon, and to clearly pronounce ourselves as the international community that we do want a comprehensive settlement. And that we not only want it, but we would be ready to start discussing how we arrange the movement towards these goals," Lavrov said.


Associated Press writers Scheherezade Faramarzi and Nick Wadhams at the United Nations contributed to this report.


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