Saudi Arabia on Friday accused Israel of not being serious about peace with the Palestinians and rejected U.S. pleas to improve ties with Israel as a way of jump-starting regional peace talks.
Seated next to U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal rejected a "step-by-step" diplomatic approach and called for tackling core issues like Palestinian statehood and refugees.
"The question is not what the Arab world will offer," Prince Saud said at a joint press conference with Clinton after talks in Washington. "The question really is: what will Israel give in exchange for this comprehensive offer."
He was referring to a Saudi-sponsored initiative endorsed by the 22-nation Arab League.
The offer calls on all Arab states to establish full and normal relations with Israel in exchange for the Jewish state's withdrawal from all lands occupied in the 1967 war and the creation of a Palestinian state.
No response from Israel
But Saud, reading slowly and deliberately from a statement, said: "Israel hasn't even responded to an American request to halt settlements which President (Barack) Obama described as illegitimate."
He balked at a question from a journalist who asked what Saudi Arabia would do in return if the right-leaning Israeli government of Benjamin Netanyahu changed course and froze all settlement activity.
He said it was "not by making gestures, it is by delving into the real issues" that will lead the way to peace in the Middle East.
He also accused Israel of "trying to distract attention from the core issue" of establishing a Palestinian state by turning to side issues like academic conferences and civil aviation matters.
"This is not the way to peace," he said, warning it will only lead the region into a "maelstrom of instability and violence."
In a sign of differences, Saud described his talks with Clinton as "frank, honest and open" between longstanding allies, but he also praised the Obama administration for tackling the Arab-Israeli conflict so quickly.
The chief U.S. diplomat reiterated calls she had made last month in a keynote foreign policy speech where she urged Arab states to take steps toward normalizing ties with Israel.
"We've also asked the Arab states, including our friends in Saudi Arabia, to work with us to take steps to improve relations with Israel, to support the Palestinian Authority and to prepare their people to embrace the eventual peace between the Palestinians and the Israelis," Clinton told the press conference.
Her remarks were buttressed by more than 200 U.S. lawmakers who urged Saudi King Abdullah on Friday to push Middle East peace efforts forward with "a dramatic gesture" towards recognizing Israel's legitimacy.
The U.S. representatives cited Egyptian president Anwar Sadat's historic 1977 visit to Jerusalem and the opening of direct Jordan-Israel ties by the late King Hussein as Arab-world actions that aided the cause of peace.
Clinton also said the United States and Saudi Arabia "shared concerns about the destabilizing role that Iran has played throughout the region and the continued expansion of its nuclear program and its support for terrorism."
She added that Washington had an "unwavering" commitment toward Saudi Arabia's security.
Asked whether the Saudi minister's strong views complicated U.S. peacemaking efforts or if she saw them as a setback, Clinton said: "No, I don't think so."
She said the U.S. aim was to get agreement from the parties to begin negotiations with the intention of resolving all the issues in a "comprehensive way."
"We know that this is all in the process that has to be undertaken and we are looking forward to seeing the parties sitting down at the negotiating table supported not only by the United States, but by other nations led by Saudi Arabia," Clinton said.
The U.S. special envoy to the Middle East, George Mitchell, has sought to get confidence-building measures on all sides in a bid to revive talks stalled after Israel's invasion into Gaza last December in response to rocket attacks on the Jewish state.