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Besides wanting to see other Arab countries in addition to Jordan and Egypt take part in discussions with Israel over the Arab Peace Initiative, Israeli leaders told the visiting Jordanian and Egyptian foreign ministers on Wednesday that they would like to see more public support from Arab governments for the significant gestures Israel has taken over the last few weeks toward the Palestinians.
These steps include the release of 255 Palestinian prisoners, the "amnesty" granted to nearly 180 wanted men in the West Bank, and the regular transfer of tax revenues to the Palestinian Authority. One official said public Arab support for these moves was important in building Israeli public opinion in favor of the diplomatic process.
Prime Minister Ehud Olmert told visiting Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Abul Gheit and his Jordanian counterpart Abdelelah al-Khatib before their meeting that he would "be more than happy if the next time you come you will bring with you ministers from more Arab countries."
In the meantime, Israel expressed satisfaction with the visit of the two ministers who came to present Israel with the Arab Peace Initiative relaunched in Riyadh last March.
Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni stressed the "historic" nature of the visit as the "first joint visit to Israel as members of the Arab working group, which was established by the Arab League."
Both Gheit and Khatib were careful in their press conference with Livni not to draw a direct connection to the Arab League.
"This is a visit that comes in accordance with the mandate given to us by the Arab committee assigned by the Arab summit to follow up on the Arab Peace Initiative," Khatib said, reading from a written text. "We are here today to present to the Israeli government, the Israeli people and the Israeli parliament this collective Arab peace offer in order to reach a permanent and comprehensive settlement to the Arab-Israeli conflict based on a two-state solution and on the establishment of an independent, viable and contiguous Palestinian state on the Palestinian territories occupied since 1967, including east Jerusalem, and of reaching agreement with Israel, Syria and Lebanon based on returning territories occupied since 1967."
Khatib said this offer "constitutes a major opportunity of historic magnitude. It will provide Israel with the security, recognition and acceptance in this region, which Israel has long aspired to."
He said the peace initiative has been endorsed by the vast majority of the members of the international community, including and especially the vast majority of the Muslim countries, members of the Organization of Islamic Conference, including more than 50 Muslim countries and 22 Arab countries.
"The initiative will make Israel part of this region and will enable our people and the entire region to look forward with hope and devote their energy and efforts to achieve growth and prosperity and advance the improvement of life of all in this region," Khatib said.
The Arab Peace Initiative, based on the Saudi peace plan of February 2002, calls for a full Israeli withdrawal from all territories taken in the 1967 Six Day War - including east Jerusalem and the Golan Heights - in exchange for normal ties with the Arab world. It also calls for the return to Israel of Palestinian refugees and their descendents.
While Olmert and Livni have in the past welcomed part of the initiative and rejected other parts, both of them steered clear of publicly articulating Israel's difficulties with the initiative during this visit, preferring instead to dwell on the significance of the visit and how it added to the current diplomatic momentum.
"The Arab Peace Initiative has many elements on how to get to peace in the region," Livni said. "Naturally it reflects the Arab narrative, just as we have our principles. I think it would be a mistake today, precisely at this opportunity, to start a type of argument on each of the clauses."
"One thing we don't need today is to show the difference of all the sides," she said.
Gheit urged Israel to begin talks with the Palestinians on more than just a "political horizon," saying a horizon wasn't enough and that there was a need to move to "agreed steps."
He said he and Khatib would report back to a meeting of the Arab League foreign ministers on Monday about their talks in Israel.
"We also intend to propose some ideas," Gheit said. "However, we are not going to negotiate on behalf of the Palestinians. We will be helping both the Israelis and the Palestinians reach the destination of a Palestinian state living side by side by Israel in peace and security for both."
Israeli diplomatic officials expressed satisfaction with the position both Gheit and Khatib expressed, namely that the Arab League does not want to negotiate on behalf of the Palestinians, but rather wants to support the negotiation process between the two sides.
In addition to meeting Olmert and Livni, the two foreign ministers also met with President Shimon Peres, Defense Minister Ehud Barak and Likud chairman Binyamin Netanyahu. They also appeared before the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee.
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