Jordan, Egypt FMs due in Israel

Foreign Minister Abdul Ilah Khatib and his Egyptian counterpart Ahmed Aboul Gheit are expected in Israel today for talks to activate an Arab peace initiative.

The visit comes amid a diplomatic flurry in the region, including talks former British premier Tony Blair, now Quartet envoy, held in Israel and Ramallah yesterday.

The Arab League has tasked Jordan and Egypt with discussing with the Jewish state the peace plan, which was initiated by Saudi Arabia in 2002 and revived at the Riyadh Arab summit in March.

The plan offers Israel full normalised relations in return for withdrawing from Arab land occupied in 1967, the creation of a Palestinian state and a return of refugees.

The Jewish state rejected the plan outright when it was first presented in 2002, but Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has now expressed willingness to discuss it.

In Cairo yesterday, Aboul Gheit said that other Arab countries may join later in the contacts with the Jewish state.

Olmert has called on other Arabs — particularly Saudi Arabia — to join in direct talks with Israel on the initiative. Saudi Arabia and others have refused, saying Israel must accept the peace offer before they would consider a direct meeting.

But Aboul Gheit held out the possibility of broader contacts if Israel meets certain conditions, though he did not specify which Arab nations might join.

“The committee’s statement pointed to the possibility for a larger working group to contact and consult Israeli government about the peace settlement,” Aboul Gheit said in a statement.

“This is on condition that Israel stops its measures in the occupied territories,” he said.

He mentioned lifting measures imposed after the start of the Palestinian uprising in 2000, including an economic blockade, halting the building of the separation wall and excavations at the holy site of Al Haram Al Sharif in occupied Jerusalem.

Setting out with optimism, Blair urged Israel and the Palestinians on Tuesday to seize on a “sense of possibility”, and made plans to set up a permanent office in the region to pursue his mission of laying the groundwork for Mideast peace.

More violence underscored Blair’s difficulties — an outbreak of factional clashes among rival Palestinians in the West Bank and an Israeli air raid against Palestinian fighters in the Gaza Strip. Blair, who visited the region several times during his reign as Britain’s prime minister, told the Palestinians his maiden trip as envoy for the Quartet was intended to gather input for formulating his strategy, officials said.

He had a working dinner with Olmert Tuesday night at the latter’s official residence, off-limits to the media, and was due to leave early Wednesday.

Blair was to return in early September and hoped to have an office in place in occupied Jerusalem for a full-time staff.

His spokesman said conversations about office space at a UN complex were at an early stage, and that Blair himself plans to spend about one week every month in the area.

“I think there is a sense of possibility, but whether that sense of possibility can be translated into something, that is something that needs to be worked at and thought about over time,” Blair said after meeting Israeli President Shimon Peres.

Peres, speaking at Blair’s side, added a note of caution to his own optimism. “I feel there is a serious window of opportunity to advance peace. I don’t know the duration of this opportunity, I am afraid it is not too long.”

Blair has been tasked by the Quartet — the United States, European Union, United Nations and Russia — to prepare the foundations for a stable, economically strong West Bank government that could lead the Palestinians into statehood, but to leave the hard political issues at the core of the Arab-Israeli conflict alone.

But Palestinian leaders told him that politics cannot easily be separated from economics, officials said, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorised to brief the media.

President Mahmoud Abbas and his prime minister, Salam Fayyad, urged him to push a political agenda that would help restart direct talks with Israel on the core issues.

“What will make the requirement for peace at the end of the day will be the bilateral Israeli-Palestinian tracks,” said Saeb Erekat, top Palestinian negotiator.

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