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Hamas On Israel.

AFP on March 29 quoted PA Prime Minister Isma'il Haniya of Hamas as saying he did not believe Israel will accept the revived Arab peace plan. He said: "I don't expect at all that Israel will accept the peace plan. They have not said that the Arab initiative is positive, but that it contained something positive, which means that Israel does not want to consider the plan as a whole". Haniya said: "the problem does not come from the Palestinians or the Arabs but from Israel, which refuses to deal with the Arab peace plan".

Haniya said substantial progress had been made towards the release of Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, who was captured by Gaza militants on June 25, 2006, adding: "Everyone we meet... insists on the Shalit issue, and we are interested by this". The 20-year-old Israeli conscript was seized in a cross-border raid by militants including members of Hamas' military wing.

Haniya said: "There have been contacts with our brothers in Egypt and the resistance factions which captured the soldier and I can confirm there has been major progress. But it will require some time, I hope days. That depends on the Israelis" - an apparent reference to demands that Israel release Palestinian prisoners in exchange. PA President Abbas has said he hoped Shalit would be freed soon. But Israel has accused Abbas of reneging on a promise to secure the soldier's release before the formation of the new unity government.

Olmert Sees Revolutionary Change: PM Olmert on March 30 spoke of a "revolutionary change" in the attitude of some Arab states towards Israel and said there was a significant chance of a comprehensive peace in the Middle East within five years. In interviews with all the major Israeli newspapers ahead of this week's Passover holiday, Olmert gave Saudi Arabia a key role in the process. But his positive remarks fell short of accepting the Arab peace plan.

Olmert told Ha'aretz: "A bloc of states is emerging that understands that they may have been wrong to think that Israel is the world's greatest problem. That is a revolutionary change in outlook... Saudi Arabia is the country that in the end will determine the ability of the Arabs to reach a compromise with Israel".

Olmert told the Jerusalem Post: "We are ready to hold discussions and hear from the Saudis about their approach and to tell them about ours". But he said accepting a plan which called for a right of return of Palestinian refugees to homes in Israel was "out of the question", adding: "I'll never accept a solution that is based on their return to Israel, any number".

Referring to King Abdullah as a "remarkable leader", Olmert left open the possibility of direct contacts in the future. He said he "would have loved to meet" the Saudi monarch but did not think such meetings were being scheduled. His office had earlier said it needed time to study the Arab plan but Olmert said: "There is a significant chance that in the next five years Israel can get a comprehensive peace".

Abdullah On Lebanon: In his opening speech to the Riyadh summit, King Abdullah indirectly criticised the Hizbullah-led opposition in Lebanon for having turned "common streets [in central Beirut] into hotels" - referring to a four-month-old Hizbullah-led sit-in, with hundreds of tents placed to protest against the pro-West government of PM Fou'ad Siniora. But Siniora, in Riyadh leading a government delegation in competition with a team headed by Syria-sponsored President Emile Lahoud, on March 28 denied that the summit would resolve Lebanon's political crisis, though he said that efforts by Saudi Arabia to push the Lebanese towards a compromise would continue.

Lahoud was seated in the chair for the official representative of Lebanon, while Siniora was placed in an area allocated for senior guests. The crisis in Lebanon was mentioned in the opening statements made by the former host of the Arab summit, Sudanese President Omar Hassan al-Bashir, and the current host King Abdullah, with both leaders calling for a solution to the impasse in Beirut. King Abdullah said: "[Lebanon] remains paralysed, but I remain optimistic that an agreement can be reached... We reject the act of turning common streets into hotels".

Sources close to Lahoud's delegation said mediators from Saudi Arabia and the Arab League had reached an agreement between both Lebanese delegations regarding an article in the summit's final statement expressing support for Lebanon and the establishment of an international tribunal to try those behind the killing of former PM Hariri and others. The Daily Star quoted other sources at the summit as having said there were "minor" changes made to the Lebanese paper, known as "the paper of solidarity with the Lebanese government", at the request of Lahoud - a puppet of Syria's Alawite/Ba'thist dictator Assad.

The changes concerned the wording of the document; the phrase "government of Lebanon" was changed to "state of Lebanon", while the word "welcoming" was used instead of "adopting" with regard to Siniora's seven-point plan, an agreement adopted by the Lebanese government at the end of the summer 2006 Israel-Hizbullah war. Other changes concerned a passage referring to the formation of the tribunal, which will now be decided by "national consensus and democratic institutions and the government of Lebanon", rather than simply by a decision from the government.

Since the Shi'ite ministers of Hizbullah and its ally Amal resigned from Siniora's cabinet in November, President Lahoud has been saying repeatedly that "no government exists" in Lebanon. Lahoud has argued that Siniora's government had lost its constitutional legitimacy since November.

Siniora on March 28 said: "I believe the good efforts exerted by the Saudi kingdom...are continuing but there is no initiative in the true sense". Siniora was responding to earlier reports that a decision had been reached on the Lebanese crisis after a meeting between Abdullah and Assad on March 27, the first such face-to-face in several months. There had been a strain in Saudi-Syrian relations since Aug. 15, when Assad described the rulers of Sunni Arab regimes including King Abdullah as "half-men".

Siniora added: "There is a desire to continue these efforts and to achieve progress in the ongoing dialogue in Lebanon between Speaker Nabih Berri (who leads the Amal movement and thus is part of the opposition) and parliamentary majority leader Sa'd Hariri". Talks between Berri and Siniora were put on hold two weeks earlier after a protest by MPs from the parliamentary majority called on Berri to convene the legislature for its spring session. The speaker has refused to do so, arguing extraordinary circumstances. Siniora held a meeting with King Abdullah on March 27.

Lahoud on March 28 said the Arab summit should encourage "unity among the Lebanese" - referring to Hizbullah's and Syria's repeated calls for a "national unity government" in which the opposition held a blocking third. The Western-backed parliamentary majority, known as March 14 Forces, has adamantly rejected this as a blocking third means controlling the country's decision-making system in favour of Iran and Syria.

UN Secretary-General Ban urged support for Siniora's government, and said the Lebanese PM "has displayed impressive leadership under difficult circumstances", adding in his speech to the summit: "I urge you to support his democratically elected government". Ban said the political stalemate in Lebanon "threatens to undermine one of the region's most vibrant societies".

The UN chief arrived in Lebanon at night on March 29 - on the last leg of a regional tour which had taken Ban to Iraq, Egypt, Israel and Palestine. On March 30 he met with Siniora and Berri in Beirut and later in the day he toured UNIFIL positions in southern Lebanon.
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Publication:APS Diplomat News Service
Geographic Code:7ISRA
Date:Apr 2, 2007
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