'Historic' talks with Arab League envoys take place

"The Arab League historically boycotted Israel, and was negative in its attitude of peace."

The Egyptian and Jordanian foreign ministers will hold talks about the Saudi-backed Arab Peace Initiative in Jerusalem on behalf of the Arab League on Wednesday, even though the Egyptian diplomat said he is not representing the League and the Saudis have backed away from the initiative. The Egyptian State Information service released a communiqué on Saturday saying Foreign Minister Ahmed Abul Gheit will be "representing Egypt and only Egypt, not the Arab League" during his visit. The communiqué quoted Gheit as saying "there was no truth" in the statement issued by the Quartet last week that the two foreign ministers were going to Israel on behalf of the League. Nevertheless, Israeli spokesmen continue to say that the visit by Gheit and his Jordanian counterpart is "historic," marking the first time League representatives will hold official talks with Israel. Foreign Ministry spokesman Mark Regev pointed out that Arab League Secretary-General Amr Moussa acknowledged in a BBC interview last week that the delegation was coming on behalf of the League. 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 Six Day War, including east Jerusalem, in exchange for normal ties with the Arab world. It also calls for the return to Israel of Palestinian refugees and their descendents. Shortly after the initiative was relaunched in Riyadh in March, the Arab League tasked Egypt and Jordan, because of their diplomatic ties with Israel, with bringing the plan to Israel. Jordanian Foreign Minister Abdelelah al-Khatib was quoted on Monday as saying that he and Gheit were coming to Israel together to carry out the job given them by the Arab League. Regev, meanwhile, said that the diplomats' arrival was very significant. "The Arab League historically boycotted Israel, and was negative in its attitude of peace and reconciliation to Israel," Regev said of the 22-member organization. "That was clear when Egypt first made peace with Israel under [president Anwar] Sadat, and the Arab League expelled it from its ranks and moved its headquarters from Cairo to Baghdad." Wednesday's visit indicated just how far the organization has moved, Regev said, adding that the talks would focus on how the Arab initiative "can be translated on the ground into tangible steps that will reinvigorate the Israeli-Palestinian peace process." Gheit and Khatib were originally to have come to Israel in May, but the political uncertainty in Israel caused by the release of the Winograd Committee's interim report on April 30, and then Hamas's takeover of Gaza in June, led to the postponement of their arrival. In the meantime, according to diplomatic sources in Jerusalem, the Saudis became less interested in the plan, largely because of the breakdown of the Mecca agreement, which they brokered between Hamas and Fatah, creating a unity government in the Palestinian Authority. The Saudis put their prestige on the line in brokering that agreement, and were very angry, frustrated and disappointed that it broke down, the sources said. As a result, the Saudis have to a large extent removed themselves from the peace initiative, using this as a way to show the Palestinians their anger that the commitments given at Mecca were broken. Gheit and Khatib are scheduled to meet separately on Wednesday with President Shimon Peres, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, Defense Minister Ehud Barak, Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and Knesset Speaker Dalia Itzik. The two visitors will also appear together before the Knesset's Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee before leaving for home Wednesday night.