Israel urges Arab support, not terms, for talks

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UNITED NATIONS, Oct 1 (Reuters) The Arab world should offer support -- rather than set conditions -- for a new West Asia peace drive, Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni told the United Nations today.

Last week Saudi Arabia's foreign minister said Israel should freeze the building of Jewish settlements in occupied territories to attract Arab states to a US-backed West Asia peace conference in November.

But speaking at the UN General Assembly, Livni said: ''As the parties take the risks for peace, we look to the international community and the Arab and Muslim world, to offer support, not to stipulate conditions.'' The US-planned gathering of Israeli, Palestinian and other Arab officials will likely take place at the US Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland, near Washington in mid-to-late November, a US official said on Sunday.

The meeting represents the most significant involvement of the Bush administration in trying to broker peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians after what critics regard as nearly seven years of US neglect.

Prince Saud al-Faisal, the Saudi foreign minister, said in New York last week that discussions between Arab ministers and international mediators had shown there had been a serious attempt to revive peacemaking.

He called for a freeze of Jewish settlements in the West Bank captured by Israel in the 1967 Middle East war and home to 2.5 million Palestinians but stopped short of saying it was a prerequisite for Arab participation in the peace conference.

ANNAPOLIS TALKS Asked today about the Saudi foreign minister's appeal for a settlement moratorium, Livni was reluctant to comment, telling Reuters: ''The last thing that I am going to do is to negotiate with the Palestinians through the press.

''I speak in terms of principles and then in the (negotiating) room we can find the way to bridge the gap.'' The Annapolis negotiations would be primarily between Israel and the Palestinians, but Washington wants other Arab states, including oil powerhouse Saudi Arabia, to take part as a way of building support for a broader peace.

In a BBC interview broadcast today, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad said Syria would not join next month's peace conference unless the agenda also included the Golan Heights, captured by Israel from Syria in the 1967 war.

Later, at a UN news conference, it was unclear whether Livni knew of Assad's comments but she said she viewed the coming peace conference as a forum for Israeli-Palestinian dialogue with the support of the Arab world.

It was important to have realistic expectations, she said, adding: ''If we cannot reach an understanding of core issues, we can reach an understanding of the path to create a future Palestinian state.'' ''We need the support of the Arab world -- not by dictating the outcome of any dialogue between Israel and the Palestinians, not by putting some conditions to the agenda of the meeting in November,'' Livni told reporters.

In a separate speech to the General Assembly today, Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moualem assailed the planned peace conference, saying the purpose, terms of reference and time frames had yet to be identified.

In her speech Livni said: ''As we have proven in the past, we are prepared for the territorial compromise that lasting peace entails.'' But Israel had learned in Lebanon and Gaza that withdrawal alone would not bring peace, she said.

REUTERS AM BST2347

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