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Jordan, Egypt to Lead Arab Peace Drive; Israel Wants Wider Talks

The Arab League has picked Egypt and Jordan to take the lead in approaching Israel to promote the newly revived Arab peace plan aimed at resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. VOA correspondent Challiss McDonough has more from Cairo.

Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal announced Wednesday evening that the Arab League has chosen Egypt and Jordan to form its new working group tasked with convincing Israel to accept the Arab peace initiative that was re-launched at a special summit in Riyadh last month.

He said, "Egypt and Jordan, the two countries that recovered their land [from Israel], will exert efforts to implement the Arab peace initiative and to facilitate a start to direct negotiations."

They are the only two Arab states that already have peace deals and full diplomatic relations with Israel.

Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni on Thursday expressed disappointment that the working group included only the two Arab states that have already established ties with Israel. Her office issued a statement saying she is prepared to meet with Egypt and Jordan to discuss the initiative, but also urged the Arab League to "show flexibility" and agree to wider talks.

Arab League Secretary-General Amr Moussa had said other Arab states will only agree to talk if Israel meets a set of conditions, which include ending the economic embargo on the Palestinian government, halting expansion of West Bank settlements and stopping construction of the separation barrier around the West Bank.

Moussa said, "If Israel does that, an extended Arab work group would contact the Israeli government to discuss ways of achieving a peaceful settlement in a fixed time frame. This is exactly what we intend. There is no normalization for free."

Switching from Arabic into English, Moussa said the Arab states are open to peace, and they hope Israel is too.

"We hope that this will open the way for the Israeli government to move on and change its policy in the occupied territories, something that would open the gates for more contacts, wider contacts, and lead to a meaningful and hopefully successful negotiating process," he said.

A day after Jordan and Egypt were designated the Arab representatives for the plan, Dalia Yitzik, the Israeli speaker of the Knesset, who is also Israel's acting president, was in Jordan Thursday for talks with King Abdullah. The king told her and a 10-member Knesset delegation that the Arab initiative represents "a historic opportunity to achieve Middle East peace and end decades of conflict between Arabs and Israelis."

The Saudi-brokered peace plan offers Israel peace and normal relations with all Arab countries in exchange for Israeli withdrawal from all land captured in the 1967 Arab-Israeli war. Israel initially rejected the proposal when it was first signed in Beirut in 2002, but has lately said it views the plan as a possible basis for negotiations.

The Arab League formally re-launched the initiative last month in Riyadh, and a flurry of diplomatic activity has followed.