Jordan, Egypt call for ‘rapid statehood talks’

1177.jpgForeign Minister Abdul Ilah Khatib and his Egyptian counterpart Ahmed Aboul Gheit on Wednesday held intensive talks here over the Arab peace plan and called for a rapid timetable for talks with the Palestinians over statehood.They met Israeli Premier Ehhud Olmert,  Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and President Shimon Peres. They also paid a visit to the Knesset.

The Arab proposal, endorsed in 2002 and renewed in Riyadh summit this year, offers full recognition of Israel by the Arab and Islamic worlds in return for withdrawal from all lands it occupied in the 1967 war.

Khatib said:  “This serious offer constitutes a major opportunity of historical levels. It will provide Israel with the security, recognition and acceptance in this region which Israel has long aspired to.”

Israel described the one-day visit by the ministers as a “historic” move on the part of the 22-nation Arab League.

But it stopped short of embracing their initiative, which offers a comprehensive Arab peace if the Jewish state cedes all occupied lands and meets other demands.

Reaching out to the Palestinians and Arab states, Olmert sent the clearest signal yet that he would try to restart talks on the final status of a Palestinian state with President Mahmoud Abbas, whose Fateh Party lost control of the Gaza Strip last month to Hamas.

“We need a precise timetable, a quick timetable and we urge Israel not to waste this historic opportunity. Time is not on our side,” Khatib told a news conference at the Israeli foreign ministry.

The Jordan News Agency, Petra, quoted both envoys as demanding Israel to take the necessary measures to launch a genuine peace process, lift the siege on Palestinians and return the situation in Palestinian towns and villages to the pre-September 28, 2000 conditions. The date marks the breakout of the second Palestinian Intifada, after which Israel reoccupied towns under the Palestinian National Authority’s control.

Aboul Gheit said at the presser it was not sufficient for Israel to limit talk to what diplomats call a “political horizon”— defined by Olmert’s aides as the legal, economic and governmental structures of a future Palestinian state.

“I don’t see [that] as enough because the horizon, often if not frequently, is never reached,” he said.

Olmert said there was “a chance in the near future for the process to ripen into talks that would, in effect, deal with the stages of establishing a Palestinian state”.

Livni told Israel’s Channel 10 television that talks should include “issues that go beyond the immediate” with the goal of achieving “the broadest agreements possible at this time”.

But Olmert, weakened domestically by last year’s inconclusive war on Lebanon, said there were “no precise timetables or stages established yet” for getting to discussions about permanent borders and the future of Jerusalem and Palestinian refugees, all divisive issues in the Jewish state.

His foreign minister cautioned: “If we will begin to get into the details of final status, it may lead to a deterioration and stagnation.”  

After pulling out of the Gaza Strip in 2005, Israel has rejected a full withdrawal from the West Bank and East Jerusalem, hoping to retain areas heavily settled by Israelis, and strenuously objected to the plan’s apparent call for the return of Palestinian refugees in the 1948 war and their descendants — some 4.4 million people today, according to the Associated Press.

Livni said the way forward was to look for points of agreement between Israel and the Arab world while seeking a bilateral solution to core issues such as the refugees and the status of Jerusalem.

“I think it would be a mistake today… to start arguing about every clause” of the plan, she said, pointing out that its central tenet, formation of an independent Palestinian state living in peace next to Israel, was shared by the Israeli government and moderate Arab states.

“We are not being asked to negotiate on behalf of the Palestinians,” Aboul Gheit said. “We will be helping both the Palestinians and the Israelis to negotiate among themselves.”

He cautioned against any expectation of a quick resolution to the dispute. “I don’t expect that we shall see a Palestinian state established tomorrow,” he said.

The delegates said they were sent by the Arab League and would report back to it next Monday.

“We have been asked by the Arab League ministerial meeting to come and to offer Israel the Arab Peace Initiative,” Aboul Gheit told reporters during a meeting with Peres Wednesday morning. Khatib later referred to “the mandate given to us by the Arab committee, assigned by the Arab summit, to follow up on the Arab Peace Initiative.”

The visit is part of a flurry of diplomatic efforts meant to restart Israeli-Palestinian peace talks after a seven-year lull.

The international community’s Mideast envoy, former British prime minister Tony Blair, made his first trip in his new role to the region this week, and US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is expected next week.

Meanwhile, Petra reported, Abbas received in his Ramallah office head of Jordan’s Representation Office Yahya Qaralleh, who briefed the president on King Abdullah’s efforts to revive Mideast peace process.

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