Livni meets Omani counterpart in Qatar

FM attends Doha Forum opening session; officials: Invitation proves diplomatic process has momentum.

livni qatar 224.88 (photo credit: GPO)
livni qatar 224.88
(photo credit: GPO)
Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni met with Omani Foreign Minister Yusef Bin Alawai in Qatar on Monday. The meeting was the first time in seven years that foreign ministers of Israel and Oman have met. Livni landed in Doha on Sunday afternoon, the first time she has visited an Arab country other than Jordan or Egypt as foreign minister, and took part in the conference's opening session. Livni's spokesman said she was expected to meet with the Qatari leadership and hold bilateral meeting with other leaders attending the event including Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Livni was invited to attend the Doha Forum in 2006, but canceled at the last minute because Hamas representatives were invited there as well. President Shimon Peres traveled to Doha last January to take part in a BBC sponsored debate, and met with Emir Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani. It was not clear whether Livni would meet with him as well. In an interview with the Qatari newspaper Al-Watan that appeared on Sunday, Livni said that stopping Iran's nuclear program was in the shared interests of Israel and the Arab world. And in another interview, this one with the Qatari Tribune, Livni - when asked about possible concessions to Syria on the Golan Heights - said, "The discussion about land will be an inseparable part of negotiations with Syria." She said she was "not interested in negotiating the specific conditions of any peace agreement but [is] able to indicate that Israel is interested in doing away with obstacles that stand in the way of peace." "Of course we understand that the issue of land will arise during the course of future talks with Syria," the foreign minister continued, "even when we are negotiating with [chief Palestinian negotiator] Ahmed Qurei, we are speaking about land. Clearly land will be an inseparable part of negotiations with Syria as well." During the interview, Livni praised the efforts of Qatar in advancing a resolution to the Arab-Israeli conflict. Diplomatic officials, however, downplayed reports Livni was going to use her visit to negotiate for the release of kidnapped soldier Gilad Schalit, saying that these negotiations are being led by the Prime Minister's Office, and that Qatar - which was involved in the very beginning - is no longer a significant player on this issue. One senior Israeli diplomat said that by inviting Livni, who heads Israel's team in the negotiations with the Palestinians, Qatar was publicly signaling that it backs negotiations rather than the terrorism of Hamas. "The Americans have been pressing for something like this for a long time," the official said. Livni's invitation to the speak in Qatar, along with a surprise meeting between Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas on Sunday, are gestures meant to show the US the diplomatic process has momentum, Israeli diplomatic officials said Sunday. Olmert and Abbas met at the Prime Minister's Residence in Jerusalem on Sunday for 90 minutes of private talks, their second meeting in a week. Diplomatic officials said the previously unannounced meeting was intended to coordinate positions prior to Abbas's trip to Washington next week for a meeting with US President George W. Bush. According to the officials, there is a significant push under way for Israel and the PA to draw up some kind of document reflecting progress in the negotiations that could be presented to Bush when he arrives here in mid-May. Bush has said that he wants a framework agreement between Israel and the PA reached before he leaves office next January. The US administration, which has been keen on seeing some kind of public support from the non-radical Arab states for the current Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, seemed to finally get something on Sunday when Livni went to Qatar to deliver the keynote address at the Doha Forum on Democracy, Development and Free Trade. More than 100 government officials from Arab countries are attending the conference, although there are few currently serving leaders there, and quite a number of former ranking officials. The Annapolis process was predicated on non-radical Arab states, such as Saudi Arabia and the Persian Gulf countries, publicly supporting the diplomatic process, something that has been slow in coming. Meanwhile, US National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley is expected in Israel on Monday to discuss Bush's upcoming visit, and US Secretary of State Condoleezza, who was just here two weeks ago, is expected to return during the first week of May for the same purpose, reflecting the importance the administration places on a last-ditch effort to keep the diplomatic process on track. Another top-flight US Middle East official, Special Envoy for Middle East Security James Jones, is currently in the region and met on Sunday with Defense Minister Ehud Barak. Barak updated Jones on the goodwill gestures Israel has been making to the Palestinians. Defense officials said Jones's and Hadley's visits were part of US efforts to pressure the defense establishment to make additional gestures to the Palestinians ahead of Bush's visit. The officials said the US was keeping up a "steady level of pressure" on Barak to come up with new ideas on how to ease restrictions on the Palestinians. Barak presented a list of gestures to Rice two weeks ago during her visit to Jerusalem. Since Rice's trip, Israel has lifted 50 West Bank roadblocks as well as two main checkpoints. The officials discussed American plans to train PA security forces and deploy them in Jenin. The US is currently training 600 Palestinian soldiers in Jordan. During the meeting at the Defense Ministry in Tel Aviv, Barak spoke with Jones about additional restrictions Israel was considering easing but at the same time repeated his concern that such a move would backfire. He said Israel would do what it could to ease restrictions on the Palestinians but would remain committed to ensuring the security of its own citizens. Officials said that "calculated risks" were taken with the restrictions that have already been lifted. Barak and Jones also discussed the upcoming business conference in Bethlehem being organized by Quartet envoy Tony Blair, which is expected to bring hundreds of businessmen from around the world to the city. The goal of the conference - being planned under the slogan "You Can Do Business in Palestine" - is to bring Israeli, European, Arab, American and Palestinian businessmen together to examine investment opportunities in the West Bank and potential joint ventures in Palestinian industries. Yaakov Katz contributed to this report.