Israeli Prime Minister seeks regional peace conference

( AP ) - In a dramatic response to an Arab peace initiative, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert on Sunday invited Arab leaders to a regional peace conference to discuss their ideas for resolving the Arab-Israeli conflict.

Olmert's surprise call came amid a flurry of new international peace efforts. U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has repeatedly traveled to Israel to try to spur negotiations, and visiting German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who is currently president of the EU, was here Sunday to buttress those efforts.

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.

Almost every Israeli prime minister has called for peace talks with moderate Arab leaders over the years, but the only multinational forum was the 1991 Madrid conference, which was followed by secret Israeli-Palestinian contacts and a series of interim peace accords. Olmert's invitation Sunday was the first time Israel has called on Saudi Arabia - which maintains a state of war with Israel, but has also pushed recently for a peace deal - to take the lead.

At a summit in Saudi Arabia last week, the Arab League renewed a 2002 Saudi peace plan that would recognize Israel in exchange for withdrawal from all captured territories and a just solution for the Palestinian refugees. Olmert welcomed the decision but said Israel did not accept all parts of the plan.

"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.

While he proposed a regional meeting, he also said he would attend a meeting 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."

There was no immediate response from Saudi Arabia.

Saeb Erekat, the chief Palestinian negotiator, said 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.

In a series of interviews over the weekend, Olmert said he would welcome talks with Saudi Arabia and moderate Arab leaders, but he stopped short of calling for a regional peace conference.

Merkel cautiously embraced the idea.

"It is important to talk, but is also is important to turn the spoken word into deeds," she said.

Olmert also denied reports of a planned coordinated offensive in which the U.S. would attack Iran and Israel would hit Syria and Lebanon at the same time.

Olmert dismissed the idea, calling it "a plan we don't know of. It is baseless, and an unfounded rumor with no foundation. I hope no one will operate on the basis of unfounded rumor to create a move that for no reason would drag us into a violent confrontation."

Merkel met with both Olmert and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas on Sunday, shunning members of the new Palestinian unity government bringing together Abbas' Fatah with the militant Islamic Hamas.

She said the world could show greater flexibility if Gaza militants release an Israeli soldier who has been held for nine months.

After meeting Olmert, Merkel said the "Quartet" of Mideast negotiators - the U.S., EU, U.N. and Russia - would monitor progress in talks between Olmert and Abbas. The two pledged to Rice last week that they would meet regularly. She said the Quartet would "check that the things that were agreed upon will also be carried out."

After meeting Merkel on Sunday, Abbas demanded that Israel "accept the initiative and allow an opportunity for direct, serious negotiations aimed at ending the Arab-Israeli conflict."

Abbas' aides contend that the unity government cannot be ignored because it represents the vast majority of the Palestinian people. They also note that the government calls for establishing a state in territories Israel occupied in the 1967 Mideast War, implying recognition of Israel, and that it seeks to consolidate a truce. Yet Abbas has been unable to stop the rocket fire from Gaza or to win the release of the soldier.

Israel and Germany have close relations. Germany has long considered guaranteeing Israel's security to be a pillar of its foreign policy following the Holocaust. Sunday's stops included breakfast with Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and a tour of the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial.

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