Arab League Envoys Hold Talks in Israel

By Samuel Sockol
Special to The Washington Post
Thursday, July 26, 2007

JERUSALEM, July 25 -- The foreign ministers of Egypt and Jordan came to Israel on Wednesday to promote an Arab peace plan in the first visit by official representatives of the Arab League to the Jewish state.

Israeli leaders and the Arab envoys -- from the two states that already recognize Israel -- pronounced the visit historic, but it produced no breakthroughs.

"The Arab peace initiative and the dialogue with the Arab 'working group' is a historical opportunity for Arab-Israeli relations and the Palestinian-Israeli process," said Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni.

Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit and his Jordanian counterpart, Abdul-Illah Khatib, met with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, Livni and other leaders to discuss the Arab League's land-for-peace deal. The plan promises normal relations between Arab states and Israel in exchange for Israel's full withdrawal from land it occupied in the 1967 Arab-Israeli war, the establishment of a Palestinian state with its capital in East Jerusalem and a "just solution" to the plight of Palestinian refugees, who claim a right to return to homes they fled or were forced to flee when Israel was established in 1948.

The initiative was first proposed by Saudi Arabia in 2002 but went nowhere, in part because of Israel's objections to some of its terms. The 22-member League revived the plan and accepted it unanimously this May. Aboul Gheit and Khatib told their Israeli interlocutors that 50 Muslim states support the initiative.

At the same time, according to Israeli news reports, Israel is pursuing a new attempt to revive peace talks with the Palestinians.

The Israeli daily Haaretz reported Wednesday that Olmert is planning to hold negotiations with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas toward an "agreement of principles" for the establishment of a Palestinian state in the Gaza Strip and most of the West Bank.

Olmert said Wednesday that no timetable had been set for the talks.

Miri Eisen, Olmert's spokeswoman, said, "We have different ideas, and this is one of the many ideas to go forward with." She added that "the prime minister supports the basic ideas of the Arab League regarding the conflict; the role of the League would be to enhance the bilateral track and not supersede it."

Analysts were unimpressed with reports of a phased approach. "Two years after disengagement from Gaza, the Israeli government is shifting away from the notion of unilateralism and accepting the idea of an agreed political settlement," said Sergio Yahni, co-director of the Alternative Information Center, an Israeli-Palestinian research group. "But instead of dealing with the core issues of the conflict, it is looking for a settlement in phases, which we have seen already in the Oslo accords and has led us to a dead end."

The arrival of the two Arab foreign ministers followed a visit by Tony Blair, the former British prime minister, who held meetings with Israeli and Palestinian officials as the new Middle East envoy for the so-called Quartet, which comprises the European Union, Russia, the United Nations and the United States. Blair said he detected a "sense of possibility."

Palestinians say they place little hope in these recent diplomatic maneuvers, in part because they are more concerned with the lack of internal dialogue between the two halves of their divided government. Abbas heads the Palestinian Authority from Ramallah, in the West Bank, while Hamas, or the Islamic Resistance Movement, runs a parallel government in Gaza.

Relations remain tense between Hamas, which does not recognize Israel, and Abbas's Fatah party, which wants to negotiate peace with the Jewish state. On Wednesday, An-Najah National University in the West Bank city of Nablus was closed following clashes Tuesday between students from the two main political factions.

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