Jerusalem – For the first time in its history, the 22-nation Arab League will send a delegation to Israel this week, with the mission of discussing a sweeping peace initiative as well as the threat posed by Hamas and other Islamic extremists.
The announcement from Israeli and Arab diplomats came Sunday, just as Israel’s Cabinet approved the release of 250 Palestinian prisoners in a bid to bolster moderate Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in his power struggle with Hamas.
The Arab League historically has been hostile toward the Jewish state, but has grown increasingly conciliatory given the expanding influence of Islamic extremists in the region – a concern underscored by Hamas’ violent takeover of the Gaza Strip last month.
Jordan’s foreign ministry said Jordanian Foreign Minister Abdul-Ilah al-Khatib and Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit would arrive in Jerusalem on Thursday for talks with Israeli officials – Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and Defense Minister Ehud Barak.
Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Mark Regev said the foreign ministers would lead an Arab League mission to Israel to discuss the Arab peace plan, which would trade full Arab recognition of Israel for an Israeli withdrawal from all lands captured in the 1967 Mideast war and the creation of a Palestinian state.
“This is the first time the Arab League is coming to Israel,” Regev said. “From its inception the Arab League has been hostile to Israel. It will be the first time we’ll be flying the Arab League flag.”
Arab League Secretary Amr Moussa said Sunday that “the upcoming visit of Egypt’s and Jordan’s foreign ministers to Israel upon the request of the Arab committee of peace initiative is to conduct necessary contacts with Israel.”
The two foreign ministers, whose countries have peace agreements with Israel, have been designated as the League’s official point men for the Arab peace initiative.
Livni met them in Cairo in May for the first official, public talks between the two sides, and the Arab peace initiative was the focus.
Israel rejected the Arab plan outright when Saudi Arabia first proposed it in 2002, at the height of the Palestinian uprising. But it softened its resistance after moderate Arab states endorsed the plan again in March, sharing their concerns about Iran’s growing influence.
Israeli officials have said they welcomed aspects of the plan, while rejecting its call for a return of all of the West Bank and an implied demand to take in Palestinian refugees from the 1948 war that followed Israel’s creation.
In another gesture of support for the moderate Palestinian leadership, Livni met late Sunday in Jerusalem with Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, according to Fayyad and Foreign Ministry spokesman Regev.
Fayyad said the meeting centered on ways to “push the peace process forward” as well as “issues related to the daily life of the Palestinians, especially in the Gaza Strip.” Regev said the two officials discussed events in the Palestinian territories and “how the larger Arab world can help the process.”
But at the same time, Israel has continued military operations aimed at Palestinian militants in the West Bank. Israeli forces killed a Palestinian gunman late Sunday in an exchange of fire near the town of Jenin, Palestinian officials and the army said. Islamic Jihad said the militant, Mohammed Nazal, 24, was one its leaders.
Moderate Arab countries and the West have been pushing for renewed Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking since Gaza fell to Hamas, a group that refuses to recognize Israel’s right to exist and has killed more than 250 Israelis in suicide bombings. Abbas dismissed Hamas from government after the Gaza takeover and set up an emergency Cabinet of loyalists that has Western and moderate Arab backing.
Last month, Egypt hosted a summit of the Israeli, Palestinian and Jordanian leaders to show support for Abbas and to discuss the resumption of peace talks.
At that meeting Olmert pledged to free 250 Palestinian prisoners from Israeli jails in a goodwill gesture meant to bolster Abbas.
On Sunday the Cabinet formally approved the prisoner release. But the timing remained unclear, reflecting a dispute between security officials, who want to free only prisoners whose terms are almost up, and Olmert, who wants a more significant gesture.
Palestinians criticized Israel for not consulting with them on who should be let go, and said the matter should be referred to a joint committee on prisoners the two sides set up two years ago.