Netanyahu hails spirit of Arab peace initiative

PM makes first positive comment on 2002 plan as Mitchell, Gates and other top American officials head to Israel.

Three days before a parade of senior Obama administration officials is due here to talk about everything from construction in Gush Etzion to Iran's building of a nuclear bomb, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu on Thursday expressed interest in the Arab Peace Initiative for the first time, but only if it is not a final, non-negotiable offer. Speaking at a reception at the house of the Egyptian ambassador in Herzliya to mark Egypt's national day, Netanyahu said that Israel "valued efforts of Arab states to advance peace initiatives, and if these offers are not final offers, then I believe this spirit can create an atmosphere in which a comprehensive peace is possible." Netanyahu said the spirit of reconciliation in this initiative was an important change from the spirit of Khartoum, the conference of 13 Arab leaders immediately after the Six Day War, at which the Arab world said no to peace, recognition or negotiations with Israel. "We hope in the months ahead to forge peace with the Palestinians and to expand that into a vision of a broader regional peace," Netanyahu said. The Arab Peace Initiative of 2002, backed by all 22 members of the Arab League, calls for a complete Israeli withdrawal to the 1967 lines, including on the Golan Heights and in east Jerusalem, as well as a "just" solution to the Palestinian refugee problem, in return for normalization of relations. Israel's position is that it is willing to negotiate with the Arab states regarding this initiative, but that it should not be seen as a-take-it-or-leave-it proposition. Part of the current US diplomatic efforts aims to get Arab countries, specifically Saudi Arabia, to begin the normalization process with Israel now, and not wait until the end of the process. US progress in getting the Arab states to make gestures now will be one of the topics of conversation when US Middle East envoy George Mitchell arrives on Sunday for talks. US State Department spokesman J. Crowley said Thursday that Mitchell was first heading to Syria, for his second visit there since taking up his post in January. Mitchell's point man on Syria and Lebanon, Fred Hof, was in both Israel and Syria earlier this month, fueling speculation that the Obama administration was keen on jump-starting Israeli-Syrian negotiations. But Vice Premier and Regional Development Minister Silvan Shalom, at a press conference with foreign journalists on Thursday, said that while Israel respected the US decision to engage in discussions with the Syrians, for there to be a "true dialogue" Syria needed to abandon its connections with Iran, Hizbullah and Hamas. "When Syria does this, Israel will be happy to return to the negotiating table," he said. Mitchell will be followed here next week by Defense Minister Robert Gates, scheduled to arrive Monday for some six hours of talks, expected to focus on the Iranian issue. Later next week US National Security Advisor James Jones, and Dennis Ross, recently appointed to a key position on the Middle East in the White House, are also expected. At the ceremony at the Egyptian ambassador's residence, both Netanyahu and President Shimon Peres praised Cairo for its constructive role in the region, and especially the leadership of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, who, Peres said, had a "strong voice for peace." Netanyahu praised Mubarak for his "steadfast leadership," which he said was critical for maintaining stability and security in the region.