Israel should halt settlements before talks - Saud

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NEW YORK, Sep 27 (Reuters) Saudi Arabia's foreign minister said that Israel should freeze the building of Jewish settlements in occupied territories and of a West Bank barrier to attract Arab states to a planned peace conference.

But speaking to a group of journalists, Prince Saud al-Faisal stopped short of saying the Arabs would not attend the US-organized conference, expected to be held in the Washington area in November, unless Israel took such measures.

Saud, attending the annual UN General Assembly gathering of world leaders, said he had been encouraged by discussions between Arab ministers and international mediators on Sunday that there was a serious attempt to revive the peace process.

''There is a sense that there is something new happening, and this is encouraging if it is going to prove right,'' he said.

''We are waiting to see, but the language we have heard ...

such statements that failure is not an option ... that the intent is to look at the final status issues, the important issues and not the peripheral issues ... this is what we have always asked for.'' The negotiations would be primarily between Israel and the Palestinians, but the United States wants other Arab states to take part in the conference as a way to build support for a broader peace between Israel and its neighbors.

SAUDI FOCUS Washington has said members of an Arab League panel -- the Palestinian Authority, Syria, Lebanon, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Egypt -- would be ''natural invitees'' to the meeting, for which no invitations have yet been issued.

Attention has focused on whether Saudi Arabia would come, because of its standing in the Arab world.

''We will see ... whether for the intent of the conference (the Israelis) will take the measures of confidence-building ... such as the freeze of settlements, stopping the building of the wall,'' Saud said.

''Because it will be curious for (Palestinian) President (Mahmoud) Abbas and the prime minister of Israel to be talking about peace and the return of Palestinian land while Israel is continuing to build more settlements.

''So at least a moratorium on the building of settlements will be a good signal to show a serious intent. ... It is not too much to ask,'' he said, adding that was a common Arab, not just a Saudi, position.

Jewish settlements built in the West Bank since Israel captured the area in 1967 have long been an obstacle in Middle East negotiations. The barrier Israel is building in the West Bank to protect itself from guerrilla attacks has been called illegal by the International Court of Justice.

Earlier, Syria, which would be a controversial invitee because of allegations it arms and finances Palestinian militant groups, said it was ''studying the situation.'' ''The failure of this meeting will have dangerous consequences on the region,'' Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moualem told Al-Jazeera television in an interview in New York.

''If the goal was not to bring just and comprehensive peace in the region. ... I believe that attending that meeting would be a risk.'' Reuters KK VP0425

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