- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 10, 2007

TEL AVIV — Representatives of the Arab League plan to visit Israel for the first time in an effort to win backing for an Arab peace plan calling for normalized ties in return for an Israeli withdrawal from territory occupied for 40 years.

The milestone in ties between Israel and its Arab neighbors is a sign that Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert hopes to resuscitate his position weakened after the Lebanon war by reviving Arab-Israeli diplomacy.

The announcement was made following a meeting in Cairo between Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni. Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Abdul Gheit and Jordanian Foreign Minister Abdelelah Al-Khatib, the Arab League representatives at the talks, also met with Mrs. Livni.

“The Arab world can support the Israeli-Palestinian process,” said Mrs. Livni. “It can give Israel a political horizon, and it can help the Palestinians advance toward new agreements with Israel.”

No date has been set for the Arab League team’s visit, which would come at a time of acute distress for Mr. Olmert. A government inquiry published this month was sharply critical of his handing of the monthlong military campaign against Hezbollah in Lebanon, leaving the prime minister fighting to hold his coalition together.

Political analysts have suggested that Mr. Olmert will embark on a peace gambit with Arab countries in order to give new life to a foreign policy agenda that’s been paralyzed from the war fallout.

Visits to Israel by top Arab officials are a rare occurrence, giving the upcoming Arab League mission added weight.

“An Arab league visit, while not enough to renew active negotiations, is an important symbolic step,” said Scott Lasensky, a senior research associate at the Washington-based U.S. Institute of Peace. “It would give Israeli leaders more latitude and political support” to work with the Arab League peace initiative.

The Arab League proposal offers Israel full diplomatic ties with the member states on the condition Israel relinquish the West Bank and the Golan Heights. Mr. Lasensky said senior-level meetings with officials from Saudi Arabia, a country which doesn’t have relations with Israel, would also give the peace process a significant push.

At the same time, with Mr. Olmert’s public approval ratings in the single digits, many are skeptical whether the prime minister would have the sufficient political backing or clout to cut a significant peace deal with Arab countries.

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