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Israel now open to once-rejected Arab peace plan

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A five-year-old Saudi Arabian regional peace plan appears to be displacing the US's dormant "road map" as the initiative to get Arabs and Israelis back to the table.

After initially rejecting the plan, which was adopted by the Arab League in 2002 and offers full Arab ties if Israel returns all territory occupied since 1967, Israel this week praised the proposal as a new starting point for talks.

The resurfacing of the plan highlights the growing willingness of US-allied Arab regimes to engage with the Palestinian-Israeli conflict directly. But there is still a wide gap between what Arabs are seeking – such as the return of Palestinian refugees – and what Israel is willing to give.

Regional diplomacy is also coming to the fore elsewhere. An international gathering in Iraq to begin deeper discussions on what the region can do to ease that country's problems preceded Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's expressed interest in the Saudi initiative. In the plan, Mr. Olmert said he saw "positive elements" and said that he hoped the Arab League meeting in Riyadh on March 28 would reaffirm the group of nation's position on normalizing diplomatic ties with Israel.

While there has been thawing in Israel's view regarding the plan, analysts are quick to point out that Israel has serious reservations with its key points. For instance, they say, Israel will not accept the plan's support for a right of return for Palestinian refugees to homes inside of the present-day Jewish state.

Also, the plan's call for a full withdrawal from the West Bank also runs counter to commitments by successive Israeli government to hold onto blocs of Jewish settlements.

The proposal, which is to be revisited by the Arab League later this month, also underlines Saudi Arabia's growing status as a regional mediator.

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