The Saudi king said Monday his country will donate $1 billion to help rebuild the Gaza Strip after the devastating Israeli offensive and told Israel that an Arab initiative offering peace will not remain on the table forever.
King Abdullah’s comments at an Arab economic summit in Kuwait City were his first since Israel and the Palestinian group Hamas declared a fragile cease-fire to halt three weeks of violence in Gaza that killed more than 1,250 Palestinians.
“Israel has to understand that the choice between war and peace will not always stay open and that the Arab peace initiative that is on the table today will not stay on the table,” said Abdullah during a speech.
The initiative, which was first proposed by Saudi Arabia in 2002 and relaunched in March 2007, offers Israel collective Arab recognition in exchange for Israeli withdrawal from territory it occupied in the 1967 war, the establishment of a Palestinian state with Jerusalem as its capital and a just solution for the problem of Palestinian refugees.
Israel initially rejected the initiative in 2002, but in the past year has said it could be a starting point for discussion.
“The position of the Israeli government is that the Arab peace initiative remains a basis for dialogue between Israel and the Arab world,” said Israeli spokesman Mark Regev. “And we continue to be willing to negotiate with all of our neighbors on the basis of that initiative.”
But progress toward finalizing a peace deal has been slow, especially after Hamas seized Gaza from its rival Fatah in June 2007, creating a rift between the two main Palestinian factions. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’ faction, Fatah, controls only the West Bank.
Arab hard-liners discussing Gaza at a gathering in Qatar last week called for putting the peace initiative on hold, a more radical position than the one outlined by Abdullah.
Syrian President Bashar Assad has proclaimed the offer already dead and proposed Monday that the Arab summit adopt a resolution declaring Israel a “terrorist entity.”
The Arab world has struggled to come up with a unified response to the Gaza crisis — with strong Hamas supporters like Iran and Syria facing off against U.S. allies like Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia.
The Saudi king called on Arab countries to end their rift Monday and invited the leaders from Egypt, Qatar and Syria to his palace for lunch after the summit’s opening session.
Abbas on Monday rejected any talk of abandoning the initiative, saying the only option that Arabs have is to make peace with Israel.
“The Arab peace initiative did not carry the seeds of its demise,” said Abbas at the Kuwait summit. “It was our shortcomings.”
Arab League chief Amr Moussa told the summit that Arab countries would have to come up with an alternative if they decided to abandon the initiative.
“The situation cannot take just freezing or suspending (the initiative),” said Moussa.
Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, meanwhile, pushed Israel to respond to the Arab initiative, saying “peace in the Middle East is an imperative that cannot be delayed.”
But prospects for Arab-Israeli peace seem dim following Israel’s offensive in Gaza to halt Hamas rocket fire into its territory. The death and destruction enraged many Arabs and further strained relations between Israel and the Palestinians.
Abdullah criticized the Israelis for using excessive force in Gaza, saying the Jewish holy book called for “an eye for an eye and did not say an eye for the eyes of a whole city.”
The king said his country’s $1 billion donation for Gaza would go to a proposed fund Arabs are setting up to rebuild the seaside territory.
“I know that one drop of Palestinian blood is more valuable than the treasures of the world,” said Abdullah.
But it remains to be seen whether Arab expressions of sympathy for the citizens of Gaza translate into actual funds to rebuild the city. Arabs have often criticized Israel for the plight of Palestinians, but pledges of financial support have not always materialized.
Also Monday, Turkey’s top envoy for the Middle East offered to mediate between Hamas and Fatah to forge a consensus necessary to a lasting Gaza cease-fire. The rival factions have been unable to come up with a power-sharing formula since Hamas won 2006 parliament elections.
“Palestinian reconciliation is a must in order for peace to be lasting,” Ahmet Davutoglu told reporters. “If that is achieved, then the road to peace will be opened.”
France, which has played an active role in efforts toward ending the Gaza offensive, also urged convening an international conference toward eventually creating a Palestinian state.
Foreign Ministry spokesman Eric Chevallier said in an online briefing Monday that “an international conference should be quickly organized” for launching “a dynamic for negotiations” on creating a Palestinian state. He gave no other details.