Israel's defense minister said that a dormant Saudi initiative for Middle East peace could be a "basis for negotiation," indicating a new possibility for talks with the Palestinians after years of stalemate.
The Saudi plan calls for a comprehensive peace between Israel and the Arab world, based on a complete Israeli withdrawal from lands it captured in the 1967 war -- the West Bank, Gaza Strip, east Jerusalem and Golan Heights.
Israeli Defense Minister Amir Peretz said he was not endorsing the plan. But he was the most senior Israeli official even to publicly consider it.
"We could see the Saudi initiative as the basis for negotiation. This does not mean that we are adopting the Saudi initiative, but it can serve as a basis," Peretz said at an academic conference at Tel Aviv University.
Meanwhile, fighting broke out early yesterday in the Gaza Strip as Israeli troops and helicopter airstrikes killed four Palestinian militants and wounded 33 people as troops moved into a northern Gaza town, Palestinian security and hospital officials said.
Palestinian hospital officials said the wounded included a woman and an 11-year-old boy. The others were almost all armed militants, they added. Fourteen Palestinian militant groups took responsibility for attacking Israeli troops.
The army said its troops were still operating in the town of Beit Hanoun, in the latest phase in a four-month-old-offensive in the area. The army said 300 rockets have been fired from Beit Hanoun at Israel since the beginning of the year.
On Tuesday, Israeli troops shot and killed three Hamas militants during operations in Gaza.
The Saudi initiative was adopted at an Arab League summit in Beirut, Lebanon, in March 2002. For the first time, it offered Israel normal relations with the entire Arab world in exchange for a complete withdrawal from captured territory.
Israel reacted skeptically at the time, rejecting an addition by Saudi Arabia requiring Israel to recognize the demand to take back Palestinian refugees from the 1948-1949 war that followed the creation of the Jewish state, as well as their descendants -- an estimated 4 million people.
Israel has offered compensation instead, maintaining that demanding a "right of return" is a way of undermining the Jewish character of the state and destroying it from within.
Israel also questioned the meaning of "normal relations" and rejected a total withdrawal from all the territories.
In various unsuccessful rounds of peace talks, Israel has offered an almost complete pullout from the West Bank and Golan Heights, and last year it withdrew unilaterally from the Gaza Strip. However, it maintains that the pre-1967 cease-fire lines are not a border, and it wants to adjust the line to include main West Bank Jewish settlement blocks in Israel.
At the time, Israel asked Saudi Arabia to send an envoy to clarify the proposal, but that did not happen.
In 2003, the Saudi initiative was overtaken by the US-backed "road map" peace plan, which called for establishment of a Palestinian state in a three-stage process and mentioned the Saudi initiative as part of the basis for the solution.
However, the plan was frozen from the outset when neither side implemented its initial steps. Israel failed to dismantle dozens of unauthorized West Bank settlement outposts, and the Palestinians declined to disarm violent groups.