Israel's Peres to attend meeting with Saudi king
By SHAWNA OHM,Associated Press Writer AP - Thursday, November 6
JERUSALEM - Israeli President Shimon Peres plans to join the Saudi monarch at a U.N. interfaith conference this month, Peres' office said Wednesday, raising the possibility of an unprecedented public meeting between the heads of state of the longtime adversaries.
Peres, a Nobel Peace Prize laureate, has spoken favorably of a Saudi-sponsored plan that calls for a comprehensive peace between Israel and the Arab world.
A spokeswoman confirmed the Israeli president would attend next week's gathering in New York, though it was unclear whether Peres and Saudi King Abdullah would meet separately or discuss the peace plan. President Bush, Arab leaders and the Italian prime minister are expected to attend.
"President Peres and King Abdullah will take part in a special assembly that will be entirely dedicated to the bringing together of religions and will make remarks from the same stage together with presidents, prime ministers and kings," Peres' office said.
It said Peres hopes to bring along Jewish, Muslim and Christian leaders from Israel as well.
Public meetings between Israeli and Saudi officials are extremely rare, and never have such senior figures come into public contact.
Saudi Arabia has confirmed that Abdullah is attending the gathering, though Saudi officials were not available Wednesday to comment on a possible meeting with Peres. They have previously noted that Saudi Arabia sits on international bodies, such as the United Nations, with Israel.
The leaders of Jordan, Kuwait, Philippines, Pakistan, Qatar, Morocco, the United Arab Emirates and the Palestinian Authority have also confirmed they will attend, Enrique Yeves, a spokesman for the U.N. General Assembly president, told reporters Wednesday.
Under the 2002 Saudi peace plan, the Arab world would recognize the Jewish state in exchange for a full Israeli withdrawal from all lands captured in the 1967 Mideast war.
Israeli officials have said the plan is a good basis for negotiations, though they want to retain some of the captured territories.
With current peace talks with the Palestinians and Syria making little headway, Peres has said the Saudi initiative could be an alternative route to peace. Other politicians, including Defense Minister Ehud Barak, have also expressed interest in the Saudi plan. Israel has peace agreements with just two Arab countries, Egypt and Jordan.
Peres' presidential role is largely ceremonial. But as a Nobel laureate, he is widely respected in the international community, and a warm reception at the U.N. gathering could help build public support for the Saudi plan.
The conference is the second in a series of dialogues spearheaded by Abdullah.
The king, whose country bans non-Muslims from openly practicing their religion, has expressed interest in increasing inter-religious goodwill, encouraging meetings between sects of Islam and asking Muslims to reach out to their non-Muslim neighbors.
The U.N. gathering is scheduled for Nov. 11-13 in New York. The first conference was held in Spain in July.
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