DAMASCUS (Reuters) - Muslim countries meeting in the Syrian capital criticized Israel on Monday but said they were open to better ties with the Jewish state if it took steps toward a “just and comprehensive” Middle East peace deal.
“We must not reward Israel for its crimes,” said a statement issued at the end of the three-day meeting of foreign ministers of the 57-nation Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC).
“It should be affirmed that any progress on ties must be linked to how much the Israeli position represents a commitment to a just and comprehensive peace that guarantees the restoration of rights and occupied land.”
U.S. President Barack Obama is to address the Muslim world on June 4 from Cairo, a seat of Islamic learning. Egypt is one of only two Arab countries to have signed a formal peace treaty with Israel.
The other is Jordan whose monarch, King Abdallah, said Obama was formulating a Middle East peace plan that could involve normalization of ties between Israel and the whole Muslim world.
Ties between Israel and Muslim countries are mostly weak, the exceptions including Turkey, a secular but predominantly Muslim country that has military links with the Jewish state.
Syria, which supports the Palestinian group Hamas and the Lebanese movement Hezbollah, is a self-declared champion of “resistance” to Israel’s occupation of Palestinian and Syrian territory.
The OIC said this concept was distinct from terrorism.
“Terrorism is a dangerous global phenomenon, but this does not mean that we should allow it to be used to confuse issues and describe resistance as terrorism,” the statement said.
The Damascus government is trying to enhance its regional position as it talks with the United States after several years of isolation. It touted the OIC meeting as a diplomatic triumph although the foreign minister of Egypt did not attend.
Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moualem urged OIC members to honor the communique and said Syria would not resume its own peace talks with Israel unless the Jewish state abided by U.N. resolutions which, in Syria’s view, commits Israel to withdraw fully from the Golan Heights.
Moualem cautioned that a Middle East peace conference being advocated by Russia would not result in any breakthrough if Israel did not clearly accept a seven-year-old Arab peace initiative that offers it normalization of ties in return for full withdrawal from occupied Arab land.
“What is the point of such a conference if Israel does not commit to the international references for peace?” he said.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov discussed the conference with Syrian officials and met Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal separately in Damascus.
A statement from Hamas said Lavrov told the group that Russia hoped the Palestinians, split between Hamas and the Fatah faction of President Mahmoud Abbas, would be represented by one delegation at the proposed Middle East peace conference.
Russia had hoped to hold the conference last year. Israel and Hamas were cool to the idea, in Hamas’s case partly because the Palestinians would have been represented by Abbas.
Editing by Robert Woodward