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Sun 29 Mar 2009 12:06 AM

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Mideast peace offer 'not on table forever'

Arab foreign ministers warn ahead of Monday's Doha summit that peace offer won't be on table forever.

An Arab-backed Middle East peace offer will not be on the table forever, Arab foreign ministers warned on Saturday, days before a right-wing government assumes power in Israel."The peace initiative that is proposed today will not be on offer for a long time," read a copy of the draft declaration obtained by AFP ahead of the Arab leaders' annual summit starting in Doha on Monday.

"Arab commitment to this initiative is dependent on an Israeli acceptance of it," the declaration said.

Saudi King Abdullah said during a January Arab economic summit that the Saudi-inspired initiative, which offers full normalisation of ties with Israel in return for its withdrawal from occupied territories, could be withdrawn.

The draft declaration reiterated, however, that the peace initiative remains "a strategic Arab choice to achieve just and comprehensive peace."

Prospects for peace could be complicated by the pending return to power in Israel of Benjamin Netanyahu, whose right-wing Likud party rejects the creation of a Palestinian state.

Arab leaders will meet on Monday amid attempts to overcome rifts stemming largely from responses to Israel's three-week onslaught on the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip.

They will also discuss the growing influence of Shiite Iran in the region.

"We have to live up to our responsibilities and work towards closing ranks," Qatari Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Sheikh Hamad bin Jassem al-Thani said at Saturday's meeting of foreign ministers.

It remains unclear how many leaders from the 22-members of the Arab League will take part in the summit, although a Qatari official said some 16 heads of state will be present.

Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak - whose country is mediating Palestinian reconciliation talks and efforts to forge a sustainable Hamas-Israel truce for Gaza - will be among those staying away.

Mubarak did attend a meeting hosted by King Abdullah of oil kingpin Saudi Arabia with Syria on March 11 to promote reconciliation, two months after another ice-breaking mini-summit in Kuwait.

The two meetings allowed Western-backed Egypt and Saudi Arabia to improve contacts with Syria - a major Arab ally of Iran - which had worsened during the war on Gaza.

"We are on the right track, but this is only the beginning, with hope of achieving inter-Arab ... reconciliation," Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallem said on Saturday.

Cairo and Riyadh are staunch supporters of Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas, while Damascus and Doha back the Islamist Hamas, which routed Abbas's Fatah loyalists from Gaza in deadly factional fighting in June 2007.

Fatah and Hamas are due to resume discussions on April 1 after failing in a first round to agree on the composition and programme of a unity government.

King Abdullah warned last week that "the Palestinian dispute... is more serious in jeopardising our just cause than Israeli aggression."

Arab foreign ministers also urged the International Criminal Court (ICC) to annul its arrest warrant against Sudan's President Omar al-Beshir, amid continuing speculation in Doha about whether he will attend the summit at the invitation of Qatar, which is not bound by ICC rules.

The draft calls for "cancelling the measures" adopted by the ICC against Beshir over alleged war crimes in conflict-ravaged Darfur, and "urges all Arab countries not to cooperate with the measures of the ICC."

"The ICC decision against President Omar el-Beshir sets a dangerous precedent in targeting a president who is still in office," the draft read.

The foreign ministers, however, did not agree on a proposal to hold an emergency Arab summit in Khartoum in solidarity with Beshir immediately after the Doha gathering, leaving the proposal for the heads of state to weigh.

The ICC calls on signatory states to implement warrants, while all United Nations member states are also urged to cooperate with The Hague-based court.

Jordan is the only Arab state which was party to the Rome treaty that created the ICC, the world's first permanent war crimes tribunal.