Arab leaders last night urged Israel to accept the "hand of peace" proffered by a landmark summit in Saudi Arabia but insisted that in exchange for establishing normal ties there could be no haggling over demands for a full withdrawal by Israel from occupied lands.
The Riyadh summit's statement about peace as a "strategic option" won a warm welcome from the US as "very positive".
Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian president, called on Israel not to miss the chance to end its 58-year-old conflict with the Arabs, speaking of the "sincerity of the Palestinian will in extending the hand of peace to the Israeli people" but warning of new violence if the offer were spurned.
Ismail Haniyeh, the Palestinian prime minister and leader of Hamas, sat behind President Abbas as he spoke in a vast conference hall, a reminder that Israel's government refuses to deal with its Palestinian counterpart because the Islamist movement refuses to recognise Israel.
Mr Haniyeh had made clear he would not accept any dilution of the demand for a "just solution" for Palestinian refugees affected by the 1948 and 1967 wars. But he agreed not to oppose a plan endorsed by the 22-member Arab League. Only Libya boycotted the summit.
"A just and comprehensive peace is a strategic option for the Arab nation," the declaration said, relaunching the 2002 initiative that called on Israel to surrender the West Bank, East Jerusalem, the Gaza Strip and Golan Heights, all conquered in the Six Days war in June 1967.
Still, the messages for the government of the Israeli prime minister, Ehud Olmert, were not overwhelmingly positive. Prince Saud al-Faisal, the Saudi foreign minister, responded with a blunt "no we would not" when asked if his country would take part in any talks with Israel.
Egypt and Jordan, which already have peace treaties with Israel, accept privately that negotiations are unlikely to proceed if they start with a take-it-or leave it offer. But the summit's unambiguous outcome does shift the onus onto Israel to come up with a response.
King Abdullah of Jordan said: "Israel must choose - either live in a permanent cycle of war and increasing hatred, or accept the peace option and coexistence. This is the real challenge, especially [for] the US, the sponsor of the peace process.
"We call upon the US to adhere to President Bush's commitment to help establish an independent, viable and contiguous Palestinian state living side by side with Israel."
Amr Musa, the secretary-general of the Arab League, said there would be no normal ties with Israel. "We need to see what they will provide in return. So far we have only received negative messages."
This formal position masks the possibilty of movement through "working groups" mandated by the summit. These will pursue talks with the US, Russia, EU and UN, and meet later with Israelis and Palestinians - if Israel agrees. Saudi Arabia, and Syria, for example, could back the process without breaking taboos by talking directly to the Israelis. The UN is expected to play a key role after the UN secretary-general, Ban Ki-Moon, went to Riyadh to underline the global importance of resolving the world's most intractable conflict.
Bashar al-Assad, the Syrian president, sounded characteristically tough at the summit: "We are a nation that does not surrender to siege and aggression and does not bargain away its rights," he said.
Darfur, Somalia and Iraq were discussed at the summit but Palestine was the hottest topic. Saeb Erakat, the Palestinian negotiator, said: "This is a unanimous Arab decision: a comprehensive withdrawal for a comprehensive peace."
Right to return
Israel has spoken cautiously of the new Arab peace initiative and even before the meeting of Arab leaders this week it raised objections. Israel has focused its concerns on the issue of refugees, objecting to the principle of a right of return for the more than 4 million Palestinian refugees around the world. Shimon Peres, the deputy prime minister, said yesterday that Israel was against "predetermined" positions. "I would say this: Let's conduct negotiations. You come with your positions, and we will come with ours," he told Israel Radio.
More than 700,000 Palestinians were forced out or fled from their homes at the time of the creation of the state of Israel in 1948. With their descendants they now number more than 4 million. The basis of their demand to return to what is now Israel lies in UN general assembly resolution 194 of December 1948, which states that "the refugees wishing to return to their homes and live at peace with their neighbours should be permitted to do so at the earliest practicable date". The Palestinians argue that a final agreement would be jeopardised if the refugee problem was not addressed.
Israel argues that to let back all the refugees into what is now Israel would fundamentally threaten the state. Over the years a variety of compromises have been discussed. The Arab peace initiative talks of finding a "just solution". The Geneva initiative suggested refugees should be given compensation and the choice of staying where they are, or moving to a future state of Palestine, or to other agreed countries. It also said some should be able to return to Israel.