Olmert calls moderate leaders

Olmert's surprise call yesterday came during visits by German Chancellor Angela Merkel – who currently holds the European Union's rotating presidency – and the leader of the US House of Representatives, Nancy Pelosi.

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Both said their countries were ready to help push peace efforts along.

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 yesterday was the first time Israel had 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 recognise 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 recognise 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 yesterday.

While he proposed a regional meeting, he also said he would attend a meeting under Saudi auspices.

Mr Olmert said 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 Mr 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, Mr 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.

Ms Pelosi met with Mr Olmert, who asked her 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.

"Pelosi is conveying that Israel is willing to talk if they (Syria) would openly take steps to stop supporting terrorism," Olmert spokeswoman Miri Eisin said.

"But at this point the Syrian government, by openly backing terror all around the Middle East, is not a partner for negotiations."

Israel and Syria are sworn enemies, though peace talks came close to success in 2000 before breaking down.

The Israelis charge that Syria-based Palestinian militants are directing violence against Israeli from the West Bank and Gaza.

US presidential counsellor Dan Bartlett said yesterday that the White House had asked Pelosi not to go to Syria.

"We did not believe it would advance the diplomatic efforts in the Middle East. I think most Americans would not think that the leader of the Democratic Party in the Congress should be meeting with the heads of a state sponsor of terror," he said on CBS' "Face the Nation."

Three Republican congressmen – Frank Wolf, Joe Pitts and Robert Aderholt – were in Syria yesterday, where they met with Assad. They said they believed there was an opportunity for dialogue with the Syrian leadership.

Two members of Ms Pelosi's delegation have special links to the region.

Keith Ellison, the first Muslim-American to serve in Congress, visited Jerusalem's Al Aqsa Mosque compound, Islam's third-holiest site, yesterday.

"To walk in the space where the Prophet Muhammad walked and prayed was deeply moving and spiritual," he told the AP. "It was a dream come true."

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