Olmert sees ‘revolutionary change’

Ehud Olmert, Israeli prime minister, has spoken of a “revolutionary change” in the attitude of some Arab states towards Israel and said there was a significant chance of a comprehensive peace in the Middle East within five years.

In interviews with all the major Israeli newspapers ahead of next week’s Passover holiday, Mr Olmert gave Saudi Arabia, host of this week’s Arab League summit, a key role in the process.

His positive remarks fell short, however, of accepting a Saudi peace plan endorsed at the Riyadh summit that offers Israel normal relations with its neighbours in return for all Arab land occupied in 1967.

Mr Olmert told the daily Ha’aretz: “A bloc of states is emerging that understands that they may have been wrong to think that Israel is the world’s greatest problem.

“That is a revolutionary change in outlook.”

He said: “Saudi Arabia is the country that in the end will determine the ability of the Arabs to reach a compromise with Israel.”

Mr Olmert said in one interview that the Arab plan contained some interesting ideas. “We are ready to hold discussions and hear from the Saudis about their approach and to tell them about ours.”

He told the English-language Jerusalem Post, however, that accepting a plan that called for a right of return of Palestinian refugees to homes in Israel was “out of the question”. “I’ll never accept a solution that is based on their return to Israel, any number.”

Referring to Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah as a “remarkable leader”, Mr Olmert left open the possibility of direct contacts in the future. He said he “would have loved to meet” the Saudi monarch but did not think such meetings were being scheduled.

The prime minister’s office had earlier said it needed time to study the Arab initiative but Mr Olmert said: “There is a significant chance that in the next five years Israel can get a comprehensive peace.”

Saudi Arabia insists the plan is a framework that they do not intend to negotiate over and that it is designed to encourage peace negotiations among the parties directly concerned, the Israelis, Palestinians, Syrians and Lebanese.

The Saudi and Arab attitude is that if Mr Olmert is keen to advance the Arab peace initiative he should agree to a resumption of peace talks with the Palestinians on a comprehensive settlement. Amr Moussa, head of the Arab League, on Thursday said Israel was only interested in normalising relations with the Arab world without paying the price.

Mr Olmert has recently warmed to the idea of a dialogue with pro-western Arab states that share with Israel a joint concern about the rise of Iranian influence in the region.

This week he bowed to pressure from Condoleezza Rice, US secretary of state, to hold regular meetings with Mahmoud Abbas, Palestinian Authority president, that would touch on a “political horizon”.

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