- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 25, 2007

JERUSALEM The foreign ministers of Egypt and Jordan began a historic visit to Israel today to formally present an Arab peace plan, saying they were extending “a hand of peace” on behalf of the region.

The ministers arrived as representatives of the Arab League, the first time the 22-member group has sent a delegation to the Jewish state. The Arab League peace plan envisions full recognition of Israel in return for evacuation of lands captured in the 1967 Middle East war.

“We are extending a hand of peace on behalf of the whole region to you, and we hope that we will be able to create the momentum needed to resume fruitful and productive negotiations” between Israel and the Palestinians and the rest of the Arab world, Jordan’s foreign minister, Abdul-Ilah Khatib, said at a news conference with Israeli President Shimon Peres.

Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit said the two delegates had been asked by the league “to come and offer Israel the Arab peace initiative.” He urged Israel to consider the plan seriously.

“We hope that upon our return, we would also convey to the Arab League … the responses of Israel and I hope that such responses will be positive,” he said.

Aboul Gheit and Khatib were slated to meet later Wednesday with Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and to appear at the Israeli parliament.

The visit, which came a day after former British Prime Minister Tony Blair made his first trip as new Mideast peace envoy, is part of a flurry of diplomatic efforts meant to restart peace talks after a seven-year lull.

Egypt and Jordan both have peace treaties with Israel and have sent their leaders to the country before, but never on behalf of the Arab League, which has traditionally been hostile toward the Jewish state.

Foreign ministry spokesman Mark Regev said the visit was historic.

“This is the first time that a delegation is coming here under the auspices of the Arab League,” he said. “In the past, the Arab League has opposed dialogue, normalization and any contact with Israel and this is the first time the Arab League has authorized a delegation to visit Israel.”

The Arab League asked Jordan and Egypt to take the lead in pushing forward their newly revived peace plan, which offers a comprehensive peace agreement in exchange for Israel’s withdrawal from all territories captured in 1967.

Israel rejected the plan when Saudi Arabia first proposed it in 2002, at the height of the Palestinian uprising. But it softened its resistance after moderate Arab states endorsed the plan again in March, sharing their concerns about Iran’s growing influence.

Israel has welcomed the plan as a basis for negotiations, but raised concerns about certain aspects. Israel rejects a full withdrawal from the West Bank and east Jerusalem. It also objects to the plan’s apparent call for the return of Palestinians who became refugees in the 1948 Mideast war and their descendants. Israel says a large-scale return of refugees would destroy the country’s Jewish character.

Moderate Arab countries and the West have been pushing for renewed Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking since Gaza fell to Hamas, a group that refuses to recognize Israel’s right to exist and has killed more than 250 Israelis in suicide bombings.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas ejected Hamas from government after the Gaza takeover and set up an emergency Cabinet of loyalists that has Western and moderate Arab backing.

Israel has welcomed Abbas’ government and made a series of confidence-building gestures, while saying it is too early to resume negotiations on a final peace deal.

At Peres‘ meeting with the two foreign ministers, he asked them to help win the release of three Israeli soldiers held captive for more than a year by Islamic militants in Lebanon and the Gaza Strip, according to Peres‘ office.

One soldier, Gilad Shalit, is being held by Hamas militants in Gaza, while the other two Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev are held by Hezbollah in Lebanon.