[Israel Resource News Agency asked Min. Shetreet’s spokesman about this, and asked if he knew that the Saudi initiative was also based on flooding Israel with arab refugees and their descendents. The spokesman said that he did not know that, and that the negotiations with the Saudis would not coming to anything… db]

ISRAEL, SAUDIS BEGIN DIALOGUE ON REGION The government of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has launched a dialogue with Saudi Arabia to ensure stability in the Middle East.

Western diplomatic sources said Olmert, with the help of Jordan’s King Abdullah, has met Saudi officials to discuss Riyad’s vision of ending the Arab-Israeli conflict and ensuring stability in the Middle East. The sources said Riyad has offered its peace plan as a basis for Saudi-led Arab cooperation with Israel.

“Olmert has accepted the principle that the Saudis have become a key player in any effort to stabilize the Middle East,” a diplomat said. “The Israelis and Saudis have joint interest in ensuring stability after the expected U.S. withdrawal from Iraq.”

Over the last month, Olmert’s political ally, Justice Minister Meir Sheetrit has endorsed the Saudi plan, first presented in 2002. The minister said Israel should hold peace negotiations with the Arabs based on an Israeli withdrawal to the 1967 borders.

In an interview published on Friday, Sheetrit said the Saudi proposal should replace Olmert’s plan for an Israeli unilateral withdrawal from the West Bank. Olmert, as head of the new Kadima Party, touted his withdrawal plan in his successful campaign to win the March 2006 parliamentary elections.

“I propose that Olmert initiate a process in collaboration with the Americans and talk to the Arabs about the Saudi initiative,” Sheetrit said. “I believe he realizes he must embark on a political process. I hope he will work toward achieving permanent peace.”

Sheetrit has called on Olmert to invite Saudi Arabia to discuss its peace initiative. He also said he had urged Olmert’s predecessor, Ariel Sharon, to do the same.

Olmert has not publicly adopted Sheetrit’s endorsement of the Saudi initiative. The prime minister said he has shelved his unilateral withdrawal plan in wake of the Israel-Hizbullah war in the summer of 2006.

“These are not the Israeli government’s ideas,” Israeli government spokeswoman Miri Eisin said. “These are his [Sheetrit’s] ideas.”

But Western diplomats said Sheetrit was floating a trial balloon for the Olmert government. They said the prime minister, who as Sharon’s deputy in 2003 repeatedly called for a unilateral withdrawal from the Gaza Strip, has received Saudi envoys and messages that urged him to endorse Riyad as a partner in any Arab-Israeli peace process.

The Saudi peace plan, the diplomats said, could serve as a framework for cooperation between Jerusalem and Riyad on strategic issues, particularly the Iranian threat. They said Riyad has been alarmed by Iranian penetration of such countries as Bahrain, Kuwait, Lebanon and Syria.

“The Iranian issue leads the Saudi agenda and King Abdullah has found almost no Arab country ready to confront Teheran,” a source familiar with the Saudi contacts said. “This is where Israel comes in.”

Over the last few weeks, prominent Arabs have endorsed Riyad’s initiative. They included Lebanese parliamentary speaker Nabil Berri, who sought to stymie the proposal during the Arab League summit in 2003.

” This is clearly exceptional because we have not been used to hear such words from Lebanese leaders,” Mordechai Keidar, a professor at Israel’s Bar-Ilan University, said.

The diplomats said the Olmert government has quietly been laying the groundwork for Israeli support of the Saudi initiative. They cited increasing attention to the Saudi peace plan by Israel’s state-owned media.

“The Saudis have been closely following Sheetrit’s statements and regard them as encouraging,” a Western diplomatic source said. “This could be an extremely important process.”