- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 26, 2007

TEL AVIV — Foreign ministers from Jordan and Egypt made a groundbreaking visit to Jerusalem yesterday to promote an Arab League peace plan that offers normal diplomatic relations in exchange for a return to Israel“s pre-1967 borders.

Israel, which confirmed that it has begun separate peace talks with the Palestinians, portrayed the meetings as an unprecedented visit from the 22-nation Arab League, most of whose members have no diplomatic ties with Israel.

Worried about the rise of Islamist political forces across the Arab world, many Israeli observers embraced the meetings involving Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit and Jordanian Foreign Minister Abdelelah al-Khatib as a chance to tighten cooperation with Western-oriented Arab states.

“It is a very positive step and could well be an indication of the growing awareness that the time may be opportune to moving ahead and making progress,” said David Baker, a spokesman for Mr. Olmert. “It was a highly constructive meeting. There was an open dialogue, which is quite positive.”

Under the Saudi-initiated Arab League peace proposal, the organization’s members would establish full relations with Israel in return for a full Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank and the Golan Heights, territories captured in the 1967 war.

Although Egypt and Jordan both have diplomatic relations with Israel, it was the first time that an Arab League delegation has visited the country for formal discussions of the peace plan. The initiative is seen as a regionwide complement to the U.S.-backed “road map” blueprint for Israeli-Palestinian peace.

Meanwhile, British government officials confirmed Israeli press reports that they have been discussing the outlines of a final peace agreement with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, although they stressed that no detailed negotiations have been held on outstanding issues.

Britain has also increased contacts with the Palestinian militant movement Hamas, denounced by the United States and the European Union as a terrorist group, said Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh in an interview published today.

Speaking to the Guardian newspaper from Gaza City, Mr. Haniyeh said his group has widened links with Britain since reporter Alan Johnston of the British Broadcasting Corp. was released by his kidnappers earlier this month.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who is scheduled to visit the region next week, has pushed the sides to begin talks on a “political horizon” for peace as a way of creating momentum for renewed talks. But the Arab foreign ministers called for swift progress on negotiations.

“We need a precise timetable, a quick timetable, and we urge Israel not to waste this historic opportunity. Time is not on our side,” Mr. al-Khatib told reporters at the Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem, Reuters news agency reported.

Even members of Israel’s right wing, which opposes the Arab peace plan, acknowledged the visit’s significance.

“It’s a meeting with a lot of potential,” said Effie Eitam, a member of a hard-line party in parliament, after the two foreign ministers appeared before the legislature’s foreign affairs and defense committee.

“There is an alliance of the threatened,” he said, arguing that both Jordan and Egypt have been unnerved by the growing power of Hamas, which drove Mr. Abbas’ forces out of Gaza last month.

The foreign ministers plan to report back to the Arab League on Israel’s response to the peace plan. But it was not clear how enthusiastic other Arab nations are about the initiative. A league spokesman in Egypt was reported by news agencies to be distancing the organization from the visit. And even some Israelis were wary.

“To the extent that they are representing the Arab League and not merely their two countries, this is a step forward. It’s a modest step in the right direction,” said Yossi Alpher, the Israeli co-editor of the online Middle East opinion journal Bitterlemons.org.

The United States and Israel are looking to the Arab states to provide critical political cover for the Palestinians when it comes time to make major concessions at the negotiating table.

“We should be wanting to talk about the modalities of the program,” Mr. Alpher said. “Can it be chopped up into phases? What type of normalization are they offering? If they just come to say, ‘Make peace with the Palestinians, that’s what we have to say to you,’ then it’s disappointing.”

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