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Foreign ministers gather in Cairo at Arab League headquarters

Arab nations pushing for new peace process with Israel after Lebanon war CAIRO: Arab foreign ministers gathered in Cairo on Sunday to pave the way for an Arab summit in Saudi Arabia planned for later this month. A new peace initiative will likely be high on the agenda, along with a Saudi plan to gather …

Arab nations pushing for new peace process with Israel after Lebanon war

CAIRO: Arab foreign ministers gathered in Cairo on Sunday to pave the way for an Arab summit in Saudi Arabia planned for later this month. A new peace initiative will likely be high on the agenda, along with a Saudi plan to gather money to help rebuild Lebanon, and counter a flood of money from Iran to Hezbollah to finance reconstruction projects.

Lebanese Minister of Foreign Affairs Fawzi Sallukh said yesterday that his country hoped for more aid from other Arab nations to help its reconstruction.

Lebanon is awaiting more Arab aid for its reconstruction, Sallukh told journalists after talks with League secretary general Amr Moussa, ahead of a meeting of the 22-member bloc. He said he expected Arab counterparts to adopt a resolution Sunday expressing their support for Lebanon.

Worried the Lebanon war has given a boost to Iran and militants in the region, three U.S. allies in the Middle East are spearheading an Arab effort to present a plan for reviving the stalled peace process and talks with Israel.

Details remain sketchy, and already Israel has expressed skepticism, saying it doubts any plan the countries put forward would take into account its security needs. But the decision by Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan to make the commitment now is a clear sign of how worried the countries are by current tensions and especially by Iran s new influence.

So far, the United States has not talked about a wider peace effort in the wake of the Lebanon crisis, instead focusing its efforts on ensuring the Iranian and Syrian-backed Hezbollah is reined in.

But leaders of the three moderate Arab governments want to seize the opportunity in the war s ashes to restart negotiations with Israel for peace on the Palestinian, Syrian and Lebanese fronts.

Even before the cease-fire took effect Monday, the three nations along with Arab League chief Amr Moussa warned that the fighting could permanently kill chances for any peace plan and fuel militants across the Middle East.

Hesham Youseef, Moussa s top aide, told The Associated Press on Thursday that the Arab countries are putting together a peace plan to present to the UN Security Council next month because they believe we should build on the international concerns on what is going on in the whole area.

Big crises sometimes create opportunities to find comprehensive solutions for difficult problems, he said, noting that the 1991 Gulf war led to Arabs and Israelis launching the Madrid peace talks, months after the war that expelled Saddam Hussein from Kuwait.

The war in 1973 also led to peace, he said, referring to diplomacy after that Arab-Israeli conflict that eventually resulted in the 1979 peace treaty between Egypt and Israel.

In meetings with Israeli and Lebanese officials last weekend, European Union foreign policy chief Javier Solana spoke of the need to consolidate the Lebanon cease-fire, then work toward a comprehensive Middle East peace agreement.

Solana s feeling is that we now need a big push, otherwise we shall see more fires breaking out in the future, a European Union official told The Associated Press on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to make statements to the press.

Israel s defense minister, Amir Peretz, said last week that resumption of a dialogue with Syria and the Palestinians was possible. Every war creates an opportunity for a new political process, he said.

But the chances of any real movement remain unclear. Israel s UN Ambassador Dan Gillerman said Friday he had serious doubts that any Arab initiative has a great chance of being a fair one that would take Israel s security concerns into consideration.

He said the 2003 road map plan put forward by the Bush administration remained the only viable option.

The road map calls for a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, though it has been stalled, with both sides failing to take steps to implement it. Before anything else can happen, Israel says the international community must execute the terms of the cease-fire outlined in UN resolution 1701, to ensure that Hezbollah is disarmed and that the flow of Syrian and Iranian arms and equipment to the guerrillas is halted.

We think that anything that would take attention away from 1701 would play into the hands of Iran and Syria, Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Mark Regev said. The Bush administration, highly critical of Hezbollah, Syria and Iran, is also likely to push for full implementation of the cease-fire deal before anything else. And that process is tricky and could be lengthy.

It is still not known how a new Arab peace effort would differ from past ones. In 2001, Saudi Arabia put forward a plan that would call for peace between Israel and all Arab nations once it returns the Golan Heights, West Bank and other Arab lands seized in past wars. The Arab League endorsed the plan, but Israel rejected it.

Youssef said the new Arab peace effort would build on both the road map and the 2001 plan. We will not start from scratch. We just want to refocus on the real issue, a just and comprehensive peace, he said.

The Arab countries motivation is clear: With Hezbollah and its backers Syria and Iran declaring victory in the nearly month-long war that left most of south Lebanon in ruins and many see a looming struggle over the future of the Middle East.

Moderate Arab nations fear that letting the situation stagnate without restarting the peace process could increase the appeal of radical Muslim groups and allow Iran and Syria to keep using Hezbollah in proxy wars, in turn breeding more militancy.

The split between Syria and other Arab states has only grown deeper since the Lebanon cease-fire. Syrian President Bashar Assad jabbed fellow Arabs with a speech on Tuesday, saying the war had revealed the half men in the region, prompting sizzling denunciations of Assad in Arab media.

We are facing a new reality established by the Israeli war on Lebanon. It is an aftershock, but probably even more powerful than the earthquake itself and even more painful, Abdul-Rahman Al-Rashid, who is close to the Saudi royal family, wrote Wednesday in the Saudi-owned Ash-Sharq Al-Awsat. Agencies

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