Arab League drops conditions on talks in Israel

Delegation expected to present peace plan in Jerusalem within few weeks; Livni, Mubarak discuss security situation in Gaza.

Livni gestures 298.88 (photo credit: AP)
Livni gestures 298.88
(photo credit: AP)
The Arab League has dropped its preconditions to sending a delegation to Israel to discuss the Arab Peace Initiative, Israeli diplomatic officials said Thursday. It had considered demanding that Israel first agree to stop building the security barrier and that the IDF withdraw to the September 2000 lines, they said. An Arab League delegation is expected in Israel within the next few weeks, Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni said Thursday, following talks in Cairo with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. "I do believe that the Arab world, when it comes to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, is important," she said. "It can support the process, it can give Israel a political horizon, and it can help the Palestinians make further progress when it comes to future meetings between Israel and the Palestinians." Livni said the planned meeting in Jerusalem would be historic, marking the first time Israel would have formal discussions with the 22-member Arab League. Livni also met with Egyptian Intelligence chief Omar Suleiman and held a trilateral meeting with Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit and Jordanian Foreign Minister Abdelelah Al-Khatib. Gheit and Khatib will lead the Arab League delegation to Israel. The delegation will only include representatives from Egypt and Jordan, since they already have full diplomatic ties with Israel. The Arab Peace Initiative, based on the Saudi peace plan of February 2002, calls for a full Israel withdrawal from all territories taken in the 1967 Six Day War in exchange for normal ties with the Arab world. It also calls for the return to Israel of Palestinian refugees and their descendents. Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has said that while there were "positive elements in the plan," a Palestinian so-called right of return was a non-starter. Israeli diplomatic officials stressed that when the Arab League working group comes to Israel, discussions will not be held on the Arab Peace Initiative text itself, but rather on the parameters of the mandate of the working group. It is much too early to discuss the document, one official said. According to diplomatic officials who accompanied Livni to Egypt, it was agreed during the meeting in Cairo that the role of the Arab League in this process would be a supplemental one and that the Arab League would not take the place of the Palestinians in negotiating with Israel. It was agreed that the Arab League's role would be "to help achieve progress between Israel and the Palestinians, and then to translate that progress into more Arab openness to Israel on a regional level," one official said. While in Cairo, Livni said the Arab world's support of the Israel-Palestinian diplomatic process was crucial to bolster Palestinian moderates. While Israel is interested in getting representatives of Arab nations outside of Egypt and Jordan to participate in the working group, no decision was made in Cairo to expand the team to include Arab countries that do not have diplomatic ties with Israel, such as Saudi Arabia. Livni also spoke with Mubarak about the situation in the Gaza Strip, saying it was unacceptable. She raised the issue of kidnapped soldier Gilad Schalit. In Damascus, Syrian President Bashar Assad said even though the current Israeli government was weak and was not prepared for a just peace with the Arabs, it could still wage war. Addressing the opening of the newly elected parliament, Assad denied direct or secret contacts with Israel. He stressed Syria's demand for a return of the Golan Heights in exchange for peace. "Israel is not ready on the official and popular level for a just and comprehensive peace, which requires strong leadership that can take decisive decisions, in addition to a mature public opinion that can push their government in that direction," Assad said. "Both are not available now in Israel, particularly in the presence of a weak government that is unable of taking a strategic decision [for peace]." "We have to be careful," Assad said, because "in the history of Israel, weak governments are able to wage war." Olmert's spokeswoman, Miri Eisin, responded to Assad's comments by saying that Israel has stated clearly it wants peace with Syria, but thinks this Syrian government "wants the peace process, but is not really interested in peace." She said the Assad government had not taken any action to indicate it was genuinely interested in peace with Israel. Eisin said despite press reports that the Foreign Ministry had drawn up plans for negotiations with Syria, and that the Syrian leadership was interested in negations with Israel, the government's position against talks with Syria remained unchanged. AP contributed to this report.