Arab foreign ministers have rejected Israel's demands that the Palestinians recognise it as a Jewish state, saying such a move would undermine the rights of Palestinian refugees.
In a resolution released at the headquarters of the Arab League in Cairo, the foreign ministers called the issue of Palestinian refugees an integral part of a comprehensive and just peace. It blamed Israel for the floundering of peace negotiations.
The Arab statement offered strong backing to Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas, who said publicly last week he would never recognise Israel as a Jewish state despite facing strong international pressure. Abbas did not identify who was pressuring him.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said last week the Palestinians must recognise Israel as a Jewish state to show they were serious about peace. It was the latest sign that despite seven months of mediation efforts by US Secretary of State John Kerry, wide gaps remain between the two sides.
Abbas was due to meet US President Barack Obama in Washington on March 17, as part of US efforts to press both sides. He has said that the Palestine Liberation Organisation recognised the state of Israel in 1993 and that this was sufficient.
Netanyahu has already met Obama. The current round of talks began in late July, but was plagued from the start by disagreement between Abbas and Netanyahu on the ground rules. The Palestinians wanted a state in the West Bank, Gaza Strip and east Jerusalem, lands Israel captured in 1967, and said talks about that state should use the 1967 border as a starting point. That position was backed by the US but rejected by Netanyahu.
The seven-page Arab resolution on the Palestinian issue said it rejected ''the demand by Israel and some international parties to identify Israel as a Jewish state, which aims to annul the right of return and compensation for Palestinian refugees''.
It also called for efforts to convene an international conference to address the Palestinian issue, and a re-evaluation of the role of international mediators known as the Quartet, in light of their ''failure to make any achievement in realising just and comprehensive peace''.
Arab League chief Nabil Elaraby urged Arab countries during the opening session of the meeting to take a ''firm stand'' against the Israeli demand, calling it a deviation from an agreed-upon framework for peace talks.
Elaraby described the demand as an Israeli attempt to foil the talks, calling for a re-evaluation of the negotiation track.
''This is a deviation from the international resolutions agreed upon as a basis for the Palestinian-Israeli negotiations, which requires a firm Arab stand to... re-evaluate the negotiation track as a whole, and to strongly express definite Arab rejection of this serious turn,'' he told the opening session of the meeting.
The issue was to be followed up at an upcoming Arab leaders' summit in Kuwait in the final week of March.
Following the meeting, Palestinian Foreign Minister Riyad Malki told reporters that the resolution boosts Abbas' position ahead of his visit to Washington, where he was expected to come under more pressure.
The foreign ministers issued the resolution ''to tell (Abbas), go to Washington and speak in all our names,'' he said.