Arab ministers in Israel for land-for-peace talks

JERUSALEM (Reuters) - Two Arab envoys on a landmark visit to Israel presented its leaders with a regional land-for-peace plan on Wednesday and called for a rapid timetable for talks with the Palestinians over statehood.

Israel's Defence Minister Ehud Barak (C) shakes hands with Jordan's Foreign Minister Abdelelah al-Khatib (L) as Egypt's Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit watches before their meeting in Tel Aviv July 25, 2007. REUTERS/Ariel Schalit/Pool

Israel described the one-day visit by the Jordanian and Egyptian foreign 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 land and meets other demands.

Reaching out to the Palestinians and Arab states, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud 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 secular Fatah faction lost control of the Gaza Strip last month to Hamas Islamists.

“We need a precise timetable, a quick timetable and we urge Israel not to waste this historic opportunity. Time is not on our side,” Jordanian Foreign Minister Abdelelah al-Khatib told a news conference at the Israeli Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem.

Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit said 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”.

Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi 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”.

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But Olmert, weakened domestically by last year’s inconclusive war in 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.

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


Speaking in the West Bank city of Ramallah, Abbas said he hoped Olmert would become a “partner to a final settlement that will lead to an independent viable Palestinian state”.

Neither Israel nor the visiting Arab envoys spelled out how significant progress could be made towards statehood with the Palestinian territories divided between Hamas-run Gaza and the Israeli-occupied West Bank, where Fatah holds sway.

Hamas spokesman Fawzi Barhoum said Olmert’s comments were a diversion meant to “throw dust in the eyes” of the world.

Wednesday’s visit was the first by Arab League representatives to promote their peace plan, which offers Israel normal ties with all Arab states in return for a full withdrawal from the lands it seized in the 1967 Middle East war, creation of a Palestinian state and a “just solution” for refugees.

Livni told the envoys she saw “an opportunity” to use the Arab plan to advance bilateral talks with Abbas but she was non-committal about the plan itself.

“We want to hear your ideas and want to express our ideas, so that we’ll be able to carry on,” Olmert told the envoys.

Olmert has said the Arab plan has positive elements. But citing demographic and security concerns, he made clear Israel opposed the return of Palestinian refugees to their former homes in what is now the Jewish state and wanted to hold on to major settlement blocs in the West Bank.

Israel sought to cast the envoys’ visit as a potential turning point in relations with the Arab League.

But Arab diplomats played down the gesture, and the head of the Arab League told the BBC that the Egyptian and Jordanian diplomats were not acting on behalf of the organisation.

Egypt and Jordan already have full relations with Israel, and despite U.S. and Israeli appeals to expand the number of Arab participants in the talks, Saudi Arabia and other Arab League members have refused to take part.

Additional reporting by Allyn Fisher-Ilan and Jeffrey Heller in Jerusalem; Wafa Amr in Ramallah and Nidal al-Mughrabi in Gaza