x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

Israel considers Saudi peace plan: Barak

The Israeli defence minister Ehud Barak says leaders are debating how to respond to a comprehensive peace plan.

JERUSALEM // Israeli leaders are giving serious consideration to a dormant Saudi plan offering a comprehensive peace between Israel and the Arab world, the defence minister Ehud Barak said today. Mr Barak said because individual negotiations with Syria and the Palestinians appear to be making little headway, it may be time to pursue an overall peace deal for the region. He said he has discussed the Saudi plan with the prime minister-designate Tzipi Livni, who is in the process of forming a new Israeli government, and that Israel is considering a response. Saudi Arabia first proposed its peace initiative in 2002, offering pan-Arab recognition of Israel in exchange for Israel's withdrawal from Arab lands captured in 1967 - the West Bank, Gaza Strip, east Jerusalem and the Golan Heights. The 22-member Arab League endorsed the plan last year. Israel has said the plan is a good basis for discussion, but expressed some reservations. "Therefore, there is definitely room to introduce a comprehensive Israeli plan to counter the Saudi plan that would be the basis for a discussion on overall regional peace," Mr Barak told Israel's Army Radio. He noted the "deep, joint interest" with moderate Arab leaders in containing Iran's nuclear ambitions and limiting the influence of Hizbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza. While Israel's outgoing prime minister, Ehud Olmert, has welcomed the Saudi plan, he and other leaders want to keep small parts of the territories captured in 1967. Israel also objects to language in the Saudi plan that appears to endorse a large-scale return of Palestinian refugees to lands inside Israel. Israel has said a massive influx of Palestinians would destroy the country's Jewish character. Israel's ceremonial president, Shimon Peres, proposed merging Israel's various peace talks into one track last month at the United Nations. In a speech to the General Assembly, he called on Saudi King Abdullah to "further his initiative". He has since been pushing the idea in meetings with Israeli, Arab and Western officials, his office said. While Mr Peres has no formal role in Israeli foreign policy, he is a Nobel peace laureate and well respected in the international community. In Sunday's interview, Barak said he was in full agreement with Peres, and had discussed the peace plan with Ms Livni as well. "I had the impression that there is indeed an openness to explore any path, including this one," he said of his talks with Ms Livni. She is currently working on forming a new coalition government, and Mr Barak, who leads the Labor Party, is expected to play a senior role in the next administration. Mr Olmert is leaving office to battle corruption charges. Mr Barak said Israel had to tread lightly, though, so as not to appear to be "coming from a position of patronage to the entire Arab world". "We are one of the players and it is proper that we introduce an initiative," he said. Ms Livni's office refused to comment on her talks with Mr Barak.