BEIRUT, Lebanon (AP) – The Arab world yesterday for the first time collectively offered Israel recognition, security and “normal relations” in exchange for a full withdrawal from Arab lands held since 1967 and a “just solution” for Palestinian refugees.

Paul Wong
Italian demonstrators hold their hands in the air as they attempt to cross the Kalandia checkpoint that lies between Jerusalem and the West Bank town of Ramallah. (AP PHOTO)

Arab leaders gathered here in a summit gave their endorsement to the overture, first put forward by Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah. The offer also calls for the creation of a Palestinian state with east Jerusalem as its capital.

The United States welcomed the unanimous decision, while Israel has expressed reservations about the Saudi plan. Still, Raanan Gissin, an adviser to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, called the Arab offer “a very interesting development, something that should be pursued.” Gissin said Arab states should now enter into direct negotiations with Israel, perhaps at a follow-up conference to the Beirut gathering. Arab nations have so far resisted direct talks.

A final statement by the summit said that once Israel fulfills Arab demands, Arab nations would “consider the Arab-Israeli conflict ended, and enter into a peace agreement with Israel, and provide security for all the states of the region (and) establish normal relations with Israel in the context of this comprehensive peace.”

The Saudi foreign minister, Prince Saud al-Faisal, told reporters after the summit closed: “If Israel wants security and seeks peace, this is the way to security. It cannot keep the land and demand peace.”

Arab League Secretary-General Amr Moussa said the proposal had been unanimously adopted during a closed session, meaning hard-liners like Syria and Iraq signed on along with moderates like Egypt and Jordan.

“We welcome the unanimous decision to accept the communique at the summit in Beirut,” said Gordon Johndroe, a White House spokesman. “The president applauds Prince Abdullah’s speech. We hope other leaders in the region accept the plan as well.”

The endorsement came as the Arab delegations made displays of unity yesterday, trying to ease tempers after a stormy opening session the day before. When the summit opened Wednesday, the key leaders of Egypt, Jordan and the Palestinians were absent, and the Palestinian delegation walked out after Yasser Arafat was not given a chance to address the summit from the West Bank. The Palestinians rejoined the session yesterday.

The peace offer also faced opposition from militants.

As the summit’s first day ended, a suicide bomber blew himself up in a hotel dining room in the Israeli coastal resort of Netanya. The attack killed 20 diners and wounded more than 130 during a festive Passover Seder, the ritual meal ushering in the weeklong Jewish holiday.

The Palestinian Islamic militant group Hamas claimed responsibility for the Netanya attack, though it said the blast’s timing had no connection to the Beirut summit. Hamas officials yesterday dismissed peace initiative, saying Israel would not accept it and the summit should instead back the Palestinian uprising.

Sharon “is not going to deal with such an initiative,” said Ismail abu Shanab, a Hamas leader in the Gaza Strip. “We do believe that the only way to end the occupation in our land is resistance and holy war, or jihad.”

Arab states have long called for a land-for-peace solution to the Middle East conflict. But the statement by the summit in the Lebanese capital was their clearest offer yet of what sort of peace Israel would receive. It was also the first time that the 22-member Arab League has collectively put forward such an offer.

When Abdullah presented his proposal to the summit Wednesday, Israel said the offer of “normal relations” was too vague and rejected any right of return for refugees. Sharon has also rejected any full withdrawal from occupied territories.

“Israel has reservations and objections, the Palestinians and Arab side have their objections. The first thing is that they should listen to the Israeli side as well,” Gissin said yesterday.

The Beirut declaration calls on Israel to conduct a full withdrawal from Arab lands occupied since 1967, including the Golan Heights, taken from Syria.

It also calls for a “just solution” to the refugee problem based on U.N. resolutions that say Palestinians should be allowed to return home or receive compensation. Recognition of the right of refugees to return to land they lost in Israel has been a long-standing Arab demand; the term “just solution” appeared to leave room for negotiations.

Israel has ruled out any return, fearing that if Palestinian refugees came back, it would undermine the state’s Jewish character.

The statement also required Israel to accept an independent Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza Strip with east Jerusalem as its capital.

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