Saudi Arabia praises UNESCO’s rejection of Israel’s decision to annex Ibrahimi, Bilal mosques to its heritage

PLO asserts no bargaining over settlement halt

U.S. gives Israel Monday deadline to respond to proposals as Netanyahu rejects “forced” solutions

Olmert may face jail over bribery charges

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas last week condemned the recent Israeli escalation of violence in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, the Palestinian official news agency Wafa reported.

Abbas was quoted by the official news agency as saying that “such escalation of Israeli violence against the Palestinians is aiming at obstructing the international efforts to push forward the peace process."

Abbas condemnation was made as he chaired a meeting of his Fatah party's central committee in the West Bank city of Ramallah, where he stressed in the meeting on the complete cessation of Jewish settlement.

"Halting all Jewish settlement in the West Bank and east Jerusalem is the real introduction for resuming the peace process in the Middle East," Abbas was quoted by Wafa as saying.

Abbas, who was receiving medical treatment in Amman and attend the 22nd Arab Summit held in the Libyan City of Sirte last week, briefed Fatah committee on the latest political developments.

The peace negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians stopped in December 2008, after the Palestinians insisted that halting Jewish settlement construction is an unchangeable condition for the resumption of the talks.

The Administration of U.S. President Barack Obama has been exerting intensive efforts to bridge the gaps between the two sides and resume the peace talks. However, the efforts were obstructed after Israel's decision to continue expansion of settlements.

Meanwhile, Islamic Hamas movement, which rules the Gaza Strip on Saturday, slammed the United States' call on Israel and the Palestinians for end of violence and self-restraint.

Ahmed Bahar, deputy speaker of Hamas-dominated parliament and a Gaza-based Hamas leader said in a press statement sent to reporters that Washington's call equals the executioner with the victim.

He warned that the current U.S. attitude "would encourage Israel and gives it the green light to target Hamas movement and keep striking on the Gaza Strip."

Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman said Tuesday that Israel will not stop building in Jerusalem, China's Xinhua news agency cited local daily The Jerusalem Post as reporting.

"We can not give in to pressure and no state would agree to limit construction in its capital," Lieberman was quoted by The Jerusalem Post as saying.

Lieberman made the remarks when top Israeli government ministers are about to convene, after a week of Jewish Passover holiday, on how to respond to the demands of U.S. President Barack Obama that Israel take several steps to push forward the Israeli- Palestinian peace process.

The United States made these requests after Israeli government gave green light to a 1,600 housing program in East Jerusalem during U.S. Vice President Joe Biden's Middle East tour last month.

The building scheme threatened to derail the U.S.-brokered Israeli-Palestinian negotiation and draw severe criticism from the Obama administration, whose peace efforts were embarrassed by Israel's move.

Despite repeated requests from Obama and senior U.S. officials that Israel reverse the plan and halt construction in East Jerusalem, the Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's government has not shown any intention of a building freeze.

The Jewish state claims the whole Jerusalem as its indivisible capital, and has for decades refused to make concessions on this subject, although the international community, including the United State, does not recognize its unilateral annexation of the eastern part.

The Palestinians, who view East Jerusalem as the capital of their future state, have been demanding a complete freeze of construction there, and made it a prerequisite for re-launching peace talks.

President Obama and other U.S. officials have explored whether the administration should offer its own Middle East peace proposal to break the logjam between Palestinians and Israelis, officials said Wednesday.

At a time of growing frustration in the White House over the lack of a peace agreement, Obama and aides recently discussed whether the administration may need to turn to such an approach, officials said.

Two weeks ago, Obama talked about Middle East peace efforts with a number of former senior U.S. officials in Democratic and Republican administrations meeting at the White House with Gen. James L. Jones, the national security advisor.

Arguing in favor of a U.S. peace proposal were Brent Scowcroft, national security advisor to President George H.W. Bush; Zbigniew Brzezinski, national security advisor to President Carter; Samuel R. Berger, national security advisor to President Clinton; and former Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, officials said.

Officials acknowledged that the idea has advocates within the Obama administration.

The idea of a forceful U.S. intervention has long been popular with some Arabs, and some Mideast experts in the United States. But it has generally alarmed Israelis and many of their American supporters, who fear that such pressure could force Israelis to compromise their security.

U.S. officials said the administration remains focused on trying to coax Israeli and Palestinian leaders to participate in indirect peace talks, with American diplomats serving as intermediaries.

Several officials said that no proposal is on the table nor is the administration trying to develop one.

Officials said Obama has taken no position on whether to prepare a U.S. peace proposal.

Philip J. Crowley, the chief State Department spokesman, told reporters: "We're prepared to play an active role once the parties get in negotiations. . . . I would steer you away from the idea that . . . we're going to try to, at this point, impose a particular view on the parties."

Obama's discussion with the former officials was first disclosed Wednesday by David Ignatius, a columnist for the Washington Post.

Several analysts reached Wednesday said word of the administration's discussions of the idea may have been floated to shock the government of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu into easing its hard-line stance.

Meanwhile, Deputy Minister of Education of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia Faisal bin Abdulrahman bin Muammar, who is also member of the Executive Council of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), confirmed that Saudi Arabia, in its capacity as home of the two holy mosques and heart of the Islamic world, would remain supportive for any international effort aiming at reducing all kinds of terrorism and extremism and reaching a peace-loving and co-existing world community.

In a keynote speech before UNESCO's 184th session in Paris this week, bin Muammar praised the role being played by UNESCO at all levels.

He hailed the organization's declaration expressing its concern over the unacceptable decision by Israel to annex the holy Ibrahimi mosque in Al-Khalil city and Bilal bin Rabah mosque in Bethlehem to the Israeli heritage, noting that the measure is an attempt rejected by all international conventions, including the United Nations Charter.

He said the Kingdom has designed tens of local and international cultural events addressing its citizens and the nearly seven million expatriates from friendly countries who reside in the Kingdom and contribute to its vast renaissance, citing the giving-away ceremony of the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques International Prize for Translation scheduled for the headquarters of UNESCO in Paris in May 2010.

He described the move as one of a series of initiatives aiming at narrowing the gap between world cultures and civilizations and as continuation to the call by King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz for dialogue among followers of religions and culture over the last few years and the years ahead.

Just recently, the Kingdom announced a new initiative titled King Abdullah International Prize for Heritage and Culture, he concluded.

On the other hand, An Israeli court suspended the corruption trial of former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert on Thursday, a day after a longtime confidant of the ex-premier was arrested in a multimillion-dollar bribery scandal.

Olmert was mayor of Jerusalem when the bribery allegedly took place. It is not clear whether he was implicated in that case because there is a partial gag order on it.

The money allegedly changed hands to promote several real-estate projects, including a large development in Jerusalem that required a radical change in zoning laws.

On Wednesday, police arrested six men suspected of involvement in the case. Among them was Olmert's longtime confidant Uri Messer, who police suspect acted as a middleman, funneling bribes to a high-ranking city hall official who was not identified. The other suspects included a former city hall official and property developers.

Messer was responsible for Olmert's campaign finances and the two were partners in a law office.

Olmert is standing trial on separate corruption charges that include illegally accepting funds from an American supporter and double-billing Jewish groups for trips abroad. Messer has been questioned numerous times over the charges.

The formal charges against Olmert include fraud and breach of trust. Israel's Justice Ministry has not said what penalties Olmert could face, but the fraud charge alone could carry a prison term of up to five years.

The incidents in question date from his time as Jerusalem mayor and later as a Cabinet minister, but emerged after he was elected prime minister in 2006.

American supporter, businessman Morris Talansky, said he had given Olmert hundreds of thousands of dollars, some of it in envelopes stuffed with bills. His testimony helped galvanize public opinion, and in late 2008 Olmert was forced to resign.

The trial began last September. On Thursday, the Jerusalem district court agreed to suspend the case until May — a four-week delay — after Olmert's lawyers said he couldn't receive a fair trial in the current climate.

At the hearing, Olmert's lawyer Eli Zohar demanded "to stop this trial here and now." Another Olmert lawyer made a personal plea to the court to allow for more time to prepare.

The judges read a statement saying they partially accepted the request to suspend the trial and that it would resume May 6.

The 63-year-old Olmert has largely been out of the public eye since leaving politics.

Olmert is currently abroad on business and is expected to return to Israel next week. His spokesman, Amir Dan, said he had no plans to cut short his trip.

Zohar did not expect the ex-premier to be arrested when he returns. He told Israel's Channel 10 TV, "I can't imagine a reason, logic or basis for something like that to occur."