In a dramatic response to an Arab peace initiative, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has invited Arab leaders to a regional peace conference to discuss their ideas for resolving the Arab-Israeli conflict.
Olmert also tried to soothe tensions with Syria, saying Israel has no plans to attack its northern neighbor and would like to reach a peace deal.
Olmert's surprise call for a regional conference came on Sunday during visits by German Chancellor Angela Merkel -- who currently holds the EU's rotating presidency -- and US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.
Speaking at a joint news conference with Merkel, Olmert said, "I would take advantage of this important opportunity of being here in Jerusalem with the president of the European Union to invite to a meeting all Arab heads of state, including, of course, the king of Saudi Arabia, whom I regard as an important leader, in order to engage in dialogue."
He said each side would bring its own demands, and neither would try to dictate terms.
Olmert's invitation was the first time Israel has called on Saudi Arabia -- which has no formal relations with Israel but has also pushed recently for a peace deal -- to take the lead.
At a summit in Riyadh last week, the Arab League relaunched a 2002 Saudi peace plan that would recognize Israel in exchange for withdrawal from all captured territories and a just solution for the hundreds of thousands of Palestinian refugees. Olmert welcomed the decision but said Israel did not accept all parts of the plan, especially a return of refugees to properties inside what is now Israel.
"I think this new way of thinking, the willingness to recognize Israel as an established fact and to debate the conditions of the future solution, is a step that I can't help but appreciate," he said on Sunday.
While he proposed a regional meeting, he also said he would attend a meeting held under Saudi auspices. He said that if King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia were to invite him, moderate Arab leaders and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to a meeting "to present Saudi Arabia's ideas before us, we will come to hear them and be glad to offer our ideas."
However, Saeb Erekat, the chief Palestinian negotiator, said that Olmert should agree to the Arab peace initiative.
"I think if he accepts the Arab peace initiative, it would open the way to many conferences, not one," he said.
Olmert also asked Pelosi to take a message to Syrian President Bashar Assad when she visits this week -- that if Syria stops its support for terrorism, Israel would be interested in making peace, Olmert's spokeswoman said.
Meanwhile, Israeli Defense Minister Amir Peretz yesterday said the army had been authorized to take limited action against Palestinian militants in the Gaza Strip. He issued his warning after a series of Palestinian rocket attacks.
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