RIYADH (Reuters) - Palestinian Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh urged Arab leaders meeting at a summit in Riyadh on Wednesday not to compromise on the Palestinian refugees’ right to return to their homes in what is now Israel.
At the Arab League summit, kings and heads of state will revive an Arab plan for peace with Israel in an effort to end a conflict with Israel seen at the heart of the region’s problems.
Haniyeh, who is also leader of the Islamist Hamas movement, told Reuters in an interview, his group would not oppose the Arab plan, but would not give in on the Palestinian refugees’ right of return.
“What concerns me more than anything else ... is not to compromise on the fundamental Palestinian rights, foremost being the right of return,” Haniyeh said shortly before the summit opened.
“I expect the Arab summit meeting in Riyadh to reiterate the Arab countries’ commitment not to compromise in any way on the Palestinian refugees right of return under any circumstances,” Haniyeh said.
The peace plan is set to offer the Jewish state normal ties with all Arab countries if it fully withdraws from land it occupied in 1967, accepts a Palestinian state and agrees to a “just solution” for Palestinian refugees.
A final draft resolution calls for a “just solution to the problem of Palestinian refugees who fled their homes in 1948 but avoids any mention of the phrase “right of return” for Palestinian refugees, which Israel has strongly argued against.
The two-day summit comes against a tense regional backdrop, with fears high among Arab leaders that a U.S.-led attack on non-Arab Iran, which has refused to comply with U.N. demands to halt atomic work, could further destabilize their region.
In recent months, Palestinians almost descended into civil war, the Iraq conflict has divided Sunnis and Shi’ites across the region and a fragmented Lebanon has been locked in a feud between a Western-backed government and an Iranian- and Syrian-backed opposition.
U.S.-allied Arab states, led by Sunni Muslim Saudi Arabia, see the hand of Tehran in Iraq, Lebanon and the Palestinian territories and view the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as a major cause of radicalism and threat to regional stability.
Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah held meetings with Arab leaders on Tuesday night, including with Syria’s Bashar al-Assad with whom relations have been cold because of Damascus’ alliance with Shi’ite Iran and backing for Lebanon’s group Hezbollah.
There was no word on what was said in the meeting.
The March 28-29 summit will also set up a mechanism to promote the peace plan that could pave the way for Arab countries with no ties to Israel, including Saudi Arabia, to open diplomatic channels with the Jewish state — a long-time goal of U.S. administrations.
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas urged Israel to take up the offer, calling it a last chance for peace with Muslims.
“This initiative simply says to Israel ‘leave the occupied territories and you will live in a sea of peace that begins in Nouakchott and ends in Indonesia’,” Abbas said on Tuesday, referring to the capital of Mauritania in West Africa and the country with the world’s largest Muslim population.
“If this initiative is destroyed, I don’t believe there will be another opportunity in the future like this.”
Yet the plan faces many hurdles. Israel has objected to key elements, including the proposed return to 1967 borders, the inclusion of Arab East Jerusalem in a Palestinian state and the return of Palestinian refugees to homes in what is now Israel.
Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi, boycotting the summit, told Al Jazeera television that the summit will sell the Palestinians out because of weakness before the “American empire.”
The Islamist movement Hamas, which heads the Palestinian government, also has reservations, but Palestinian officials say it has agreed not to go against the peace plan.
There remains much skepticism among Arabs of their rulers’ ability to secure a deal for the Palestinians that would secure minimum demands for ending the 60-year-old historic conflict.