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Arab Foreign Ministers Visit Israel


The foreign ministers of Egypt and Jordan held talks in Jerusalem with Israeli leaders on Wednesday. It was the first-ever visit to Israel by leaders representing the Arab League. VOA's Jim Teeple reports from Jerusalem that Israel's relations with the Palestinians were at the top of the agenda of the talks.

The Jordanian and Egyptian foreign ministers came to Jerusalem to discuss the Arab League Peace Plan, first proposed in 2002 by Saudi Arabia. Under the plan, if Israel withdraws to its 1967 borders, the 22-members of the Arab League will extend full diplomatic recognition to Israel.

Israel says it will consider aspects of the plan, but has so far ruled out a full withdrawal from the West Bank and East Jerusalem, territories it captured in the 1967 Arab-Israeli War. Israel has also rejected an addendum to the plan that calls for right of return of all Palestinian refugees to their former homes.

Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni says the Arab League can help move the peace process between Israelis and Palestinians forward.

"I believe that this point in time is a crucial point in time and there is an opportunity here. I believe the Arab Peace Initiative and a dialogue with the Arab working group is an historic opportunity for Israeli-Arab relations but no less important, the Israeli Palestinian process," she said. "I believe there is a need to promote a process between Israel and the Palestinians and of the importance of the Arab League in helping to support Israelis and Palestinians to take the right steps and in making this vision of a two-state solution more concrete."

Both Egypt and Jordan have full diplomatic relations with Israel and their envoys said Wednesday they were not in Israel to negotiate on behalf of Palestinians, but rather to encourage a process of dialogue between Israelis and Palestinians.

Egypt's foreign minister, Ahmed Aboul Gheit, says progress in relations between Israel and the rest of the Arab world will largely depend on progress between Israel and the Palestinians.

"A lot of the responses of the region will depend on the bilateral [Israeli-Palestinian] talks. That is the crux of the Arab position, and I think they understand today in Israel that we are coming forward and we are offering, but do what is necessary and what is needed with the Palestinians," he said. "This is the message."

The foreign ministers' visit to Israel comes as the Palestinian territories are now divided between Hamas militants, who control Gaza, and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, who controls the West Bank.

Jordan's foreign minister, Abdul Ilah Khatib, says it is important to remember that President Abbas enjoys the full support of the Arab League.

"The Arab peace initiative enjoys the consensus of all Arab member states of the Arab League, including the Palestinian Authority," he said. "This is why we need to express our full support to the Palestinian Authority and its leader Mahmoud Abbas and his government as the legitimate and qualified and willing partner to engage in serious negotiations with Israel in order to achieve a final status agreement between Israel and the Palestinians establishing an independent Palestinian state and offering Israel the security it needs."

President Abbas said Wednesday he is moving closer to calling new legislative elections - a move rejected by Hamas. Mr. Abbas' Fatah movement lost legislative elections to Hamas in early 2006, precipitating the current Palestinian crisis. Mr. Abbas also disclosed that outside negotiators have offered to try to mediate the dispute between Fatah and Hamas, but he will not speak with Hamas leaders unless they agree to share power with Fatah in Gaza where Hamas seized control last month.

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