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(photo credit: AP)
Vice Premier Shimon Peres said in Jordan Sunday at the World Economic Forum that Israel would offer a counterproposal to the Arab peace initiative relaunched in Riyadh in March, but officials in both the Prime Minister's Office and the Foreign Ministry said they were unaware of any concrete plans being drawn up.
Nevertheless, a senior diplomatic official said Peres's comments could have something to do with "mysterious" trips that the Prime Minister's Chief of Staff Yoram Turbowicz and the Prime Minister's Foreign Policy Adviser Shalom Turgeman had made recently to the US and in the region.
Senior officials in the Prime Minister's Office, however, said they were unaware of a counterproposal being written.
Olmert has said that there were certain positive elements to the plan, and that he would like to discuss it with the Arab world.
Officials from Jordan and Egypt are scheduled to come to Israel and discuss the issue as representatives of the Arab League, but no date has been set for their arrival.
Peres's comments were the first indication that Israel was preparing a full-blown counterproposal.
Arab League chief Amr Moussa suggested he would entertain the Israeli offer but said it would not be seriously considered unless it was reasonable.
Arab countries have been trying to reignite the stalled peace process with their plan that offers Israel full recognition in exchange for a total withdrawal from lands it captured in the 1967 Six Day War and the creation of a Palestinian state. Israel has welcomed the plan as a good starting point for negotiations, but objects to several provisions.
"The Arab League has proposed, fine. We will make a counterproposal," Peres said during heated discussions that included Moussa and Saeb Erekat, a top aide to the Palestinian president, at the World Economic Forum. "We will come to the Arab League, to the Saudis, where they want... If you are serious and we are serious, let's sit together. You cannot send us a document and say take it or leave it."
He did not elaborate on the counteroffer or say when it would be proposed.
The Arab peace plan was first floated by Saudi Arabia in 2002 and renewed in March at a meeting of the Arab League. Arab leaders have urged Israel to seize the new opportunity.
But the proposal has remained grounded amid internal Palestinian fighting in Gaza and domestic woes for embattled Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.
Moussa said he would wait to see what sort of offer Israel proposed before considering it.
"Let's see what kind of offer and when it will be coming," Moussa said. "If there is a counteroffer and a reasonable one, then we're all in business."
But Erekat said he backed the Arab
peace deal, calling it the "most important strategy.
"Mr. Peres, our negotiations have finished... Today, it's time for decisions," Erekat said. "Stop the bombardment of Gaza immediately and restart the truce between us immediately. We are willing to engage now in sustaining the cease-fire."
Peres's comments come as Olmert warned that Israel would escalate its military campaign in Gaza if the intensified rocket fire by Palestinian militants on Israeli border towns didn't stop.
Missile exchanges between the two sides over the past week have destroyed a 6-month-old truce between Israel and Gaza militants. Meanwhile, Palestinian factional infighting has threatened the survival of a fragile governing alliance between Hamas, which is sworn to Israel's destruction, and the more moderate Fatah party.
Arabs also have been skeptical about the Israeli leadership's sincerity, especially because Olmert has come under fire for his handling of last summer's war between Israel and Hizbullah in Lebanon. On Sunday, Moussa questioned Peres as to whether he had the authority to speak for Israel.
"But when I see what is going on in the occupied territories, and what is being said by other officials I really find myself at a loss," he said. "Who is speaking for the State of Israel?" Peres insisted he was.
In Jerusalem, Foreign Ministry spokesman Mark Regev declined to comment on Peres's comments since he hadn't heard them himself. He explained that even though Israel saw the Arab initiative as "very positive," he predicted it would remain grounded.
"Israel has no interest in stagnation and unfortunately, if the Arab initiative is take it or leave it, that will be a recipe for stagnation," Regev said.
Peres adviser Yoram Dori also wouldn't give details on the counterproposal or a timetable for its submission to the Arab League and Saudi Arabia.
"Our government, our cabinet will discuss it, and we will submit our proposal to the Arab League and to the Saudis," he said.
Back in Jordan, Erekat urged Israel to "solve the thorny issues" including the future status of Jerusalem and settlements in the Palestinian territories. If Israel doesn't cooperate, he warned the region would be doomed.
"If we leave things to conflicts and wars and settling differences by bombardments and wars we will go into the 21st century in the vehicles of darkness and extremism," he said.