(photo credit: AP)
Arab leaders briefed key international players on a newly revived Arab initiative to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict but decided to hold off on approaching Israel because of its current political turmoil.
The informal meeting between Arab ministers and leaders of the Quartet that drafted the roadmap to Mideast peace - the United States, the United Nations, the European Union and Russia - took place Friday at the end of two days of meetings to try to restore stability to Iraq.
"It was a very good meeting and there has been a very good exchange of ideas," Egypt's Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit told the Associated Press after the closed-door session.
The Arab League on April 18 chose Egypt and Jordan - the two Arab nations that have diplomatic relations with Israel - to take the lead in approaching Israel to promote the Arab Peace Initiative, which was introduced by Saudi Arabia in 2002 and revived during an Arab summit in Riyadh in March.
Asked when Egypt and Jordan would be going to meet the Israelis, Aboul Gheit said, "Do you think that the Israelis are in a position to receive anybody? Of course not."
The Winograd Committee's report, highly critical of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's handling of last summer's Israeli war against Hizbullah, has led to calls for his resignation, his foreign minister's withdrawal of support, rock bottom poll numbers, and an enormous protest rally in Tel Aviv.
Israel has praised the broad land-for-peace Arab offer but has said it will not accept the plan without some changes. Arab countries are hoping to pitch the initiative as a basis for resuming Arab-Israeli peace negotiations.
The Quartet was represented at Friday's meeting by US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, and EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana and EU external affairs commissioner Benita Ferrero Waldner. Many Arab ministers also attended.
"I was very much encouraged by this opportunity of engaging in direct, very candid dialogue with the Arab partners," Ban said.
"We agreed to meet again. The Quartet principals are going to meet sometime in the middle of May and on that occasion we may have another opportunity of engaging in an informal setting with Arab leaders," he said.
Aboul Gheit indicated that a decision on approaching Israel would likely wait until after the next Quartet meeting.
Ban called the re-launch of the Arab initiative "encouraging," saying it can "provide a good starting point for the negotiations."
At Friday's informal meeting, Arab nations briefed the Quartet about the initiative and there was an informal discussion around the table on how to promote and facilitate the peace process, Ban said.
"There was an agreement that we should really seize this moment in the ongoing peace process, he said.
The EU's Ferrero-Waldner said "it was a very good exchange of views and we will go on in the future because we all are committed to this peace process."
The Arab and international parties have to see how to move ahead on the Arab initiative, "how this can make a difference."
Earlier, Ferrero-Waldner also said it was a difficult time to deal with the Israelis.
"It's clear they are momentarily in a crisis,"
she said. "This will certainly not help, but Israelis are a very democratic country and it has its own institutions to get out of the crisis, and they will decide whether the prime minister stays or whether there is any change."
"We do hope that not a lot of time is lost," Ferrero-Waldner said.