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(photo credit: AP [file])
Israel is still waiting for a formal approach from the Arab League after a meeting of 12 Arab foreign ministers in Cairo on Wednesday picked Egypt and Jordan to take the lead in contacts with Jerusalem on promoting the Saudi-drafted peace plan.
Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's offer to meet with any combination of Arab states to discuss the plan has not led to any immediate breakthrough in contacts with the Arab world. The Arab League decided that only member states who already have diplomatic ties with Israel will handle the contacts.
Arab League Secretary-General Amr Moussa said a larger Arab delegation, including countries that have not signed peace with Israel, would negotiate only after certain conditions had been met.
"Once Israel stops its practices in the occupied territories, mainly lifting the sanctions on the Palestinian people, halting the building of settlements and the building of the wall...then a larger working group will be formed to contact the Israeli government," Moussa said in a statement.
Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal said Egypt and Jordan would try to "initiate direct talks" with Israel, "call on the Israeli government and all Israelis to accept the Arab peace initiative and to take this chance to resume the direct and serious talks on all levels."
Wednesday's meeting in Cairo was attended by Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Qatar, Egypt, Lebanon, Jordan, Syria, Yemen, Sudan, Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia, as well as the Palestinian envoy.
The meeting also set up working groups to "explain the Arab vision" and drum up support for the initiative in the United States, United Nations and the European Union, "so that a peaceful settlement [with Israel] can be achieved within a limited time frame," al-Faisal said.
US State Department Spokesman Sean McCormack said Wednesday in response to a question about whether America expected the Saudis to participate in the working groups that "The pace of any sort of engagement between Saudi officials, Saudi Arabia and Israel is going to have to be a decision for both of those parties to make."
He also said, however, that the US has "encourage contact" between Israel and many Arab countries, not all of whom have diplomatic relations with the Israel.
"We have encouraged as wide and thorough participation as we could among the Arab states in these working groups," he said. "So we would hope that this is just a step and that you would actually see the expansion over time of the membership of these working groups, as well as an increase in the intensity of the kind of discussions that they might have."
In addition, McCormack said, "You want to get to the point where you start expanding out that group of countries that can have some form of diplomatic interaction with Israel. So we would view this as a first step in that regard and we would encourage that it expand."
None of the Arab ministers specified when the new contacts with Israel would be launched but Moussa said that it "could be tomorrow or in a week, it is up to Egypt and Jordan to take the step."
An official in the Prime Minister's Office said Israel was "happy to meet with anybody." Israel's position remains that Jerusalem is ready to listen to the Arab position.
But this same official stressed that such talks could not be a substitute for a bilateral track, explaining that Jerusalem hoped that a "moderate umbrella" could compliment the bilateral framework and empower moderate elements in the Arab world, particularly when one of the supporters of the process is Saudi Arabia.
The official denied reports that meetings between Israeli and Saudi representatives might take place in the near future, although Washington was keen on a meeting of the Quartet, Israel and the so-called Arab Quartet - Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.
Also Wednesday, Jordan's King Abdullah II urged Olmert during a phone conversation to "maintain the peace momentum" with the Palestinians and said that a timetable must be set to implement the Arab initiative, the Petra news agency reported.
Well-informed Jordan-based diplomats, who declined to be named because of the sensitivity of the subject, said that Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, in talks on Sunday with her Jordanian counterpart Abdul al-Khatib, expressed a preference that the Arab League not make direct contact with Israel, but that the contacts come through Jordan or Egypt.
Hilary Leila Krieger contributed to this report.