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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.

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo., July 6–Missouri abortion providers will face new regulations for their clinics and new restrictions on teaching sex education classes under a bill Gov. Matt Blunt signed into law Friday.
The measure places more abortion clinics under government oversight by classifying them as ambulatory surgical centers. Planned Parenthood has said the law could force it to spend more than $1 million on remodeling, plus some extra staffing costs.
The law also bars people affiliated with abortion providers from teaching or supplying materials for public school sex education courses, and it allows schools to offer abstinence-only programs.
Missouri Right to Life, which backed the measure, argued that groups like Planned Parenthood have a conflict of interest in supplying sex education materials because they could make money if female students go to their clinics.
An official with Planned Parenthood, which has several staffers who visit public schools, called that assertion “political propaganda.”
“Essentially, what Governor Blunt and the Legislature is doing is saying that teens need to be protected from information, not from sexually transmitted infections or unintended pregnancies,” said Peter Brownlie, chief executive officer of Planned Parenthood of Kansas and Mid-Missouri.
The state already licenses facilities that get at least half of their revenue or patients from abortions. Only one, a Planned Parenthood clinic in St. Louis, falls under that licensing requirement.
The Department of Health and Senior Services said the new law would require three other clinics to be licensed. The department didn’t identify them, but Planned Parenthood said its offices in Columbia and Kansas City would be affected.
The organization is considering a legal challenge.

VATICAN CITY (AP) – Pope Benedict XVI removed restrictions on celebrating the old form of the Latin Mass on Saturday in a concession to traditional Catholics, but he stressed that he was in no way rolling back the reforms of the Second Vatican Council.
Benedict issued a document authorizing parish priests to celebrate the Tridentine Mass if a “stable group of faithful” request it. Currently, the local bishop must approve such requests–an obstacle that fans of the rite say has greatly limited its availability.
“What earlier generations held as sacred remains sacred and great for us too, and it cannot be all of a sudden entirely forbidden or even considered harmful,” Benedict wrote.
The Tridentine rite contains a prayer on Good Friday of Easter Week calling for the conversion of Jews [Beliefnet editor’s note: Learn more], and the Anti-Defamation League criticized Benedict’s decision as “body blow to Catholic-Jewish relations,” the Jewish news agency JTA reported.
In addition to Jewish concerns, some bishops in France and liberal-minded clergy and faithful elsewhere had expressed concerns that allowing freer use of the Tridentine liturgy would imply a negation of Vatican II, the 1962-65 meetings that modernized the Roman Catholic Church. They also feared it could create divisions in parishes since two different liturgies would be celebrated.
“This fear is unfounded,” Benedict wrote in a letter to bishops accompanying the Latin text.
He said the New Mass celebrated in the vernacular that emerged after Vatican II remained the “normal” form of Mass while the Tridentine version was an “extraordinary” one that would probably only be sought by relatively few Catholics.
The Vatican spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi, said Benedict was not refuting Vatican II.
The document, he said, “doesn’t impose any return to the past, it doesn’t mean any weakening of the authority of the council nor the authority and responsibility of bishops.”
The decision was an effort to reach out to the followers of an excommunicated ultratraditionalist, the late Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre, who split with the Vatican over the introduction of the New Mass and other Vatican II reforms.
The Vatican excommunicated Lefebvre in 1988 after he consecrated four bishops without Rome’s consent. The bishops were excommunicated as well.
Benedict has been eager to reconcile with Lefebvre’s group, the Society of St. Pius X, which has demanded freer use of the old Mass as a precondition for normalizing relations. The other precondition is the removal of the excommunication decrees.
The current head of the society, Bishop Bernard Fellay, welcomed the document. He said he hoped the “that the favorable climate established by the new dispositions of the Holy See” would eventually allow other doctrinal disputes to be discussed, including ecumenism, religious liberty and the sharing of power with bishops.
Benedict said his overall goal was to unify the church. In the past, he wrote, “at critical moments when divisions were coming about, not enough was done by the church’s leaders to maintain or regain reconciliation and unity.”
The document was sure to be welcomed by traditional Catholics, who remained in good standing with Rome but simply preferred the Tridentine liturgy and have long complained that bishops had been stingy in allowing it.
Some elements in the document may fall short of their demands: Benedict said the Biblical readings could be delivered in the vernacular, as opposed to Latin, and suggested that some amendments should be made to the old Mass.
“There will always be some people that will see this as a threat,” said the Rev. John Zuhlsdorf, a columnist for the Catholic weekly The Wanderer, who celebrates the old rite as well as the New Mass.

SLIDELL, La. (RNS) A portrait of Jesus Christ that hangs in the lobby of Slidell City Court violates the separation of church and state, according to a a federal lawsuit that was filed Tuesday (July 3) by the Louisiana American Civil Liberties Union.
The organization filed the suit in U.S. District Court in New Orleans after court officials decided to reject the ACLU’s deadline and leave the portrait in place.
Vincent Booth, acting executive director and board president for the ACLU chapter, said after filing the suit that he thinks the portrait, along with lettering beneath that says, “To know peace, obey these laws,” violates laws upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court.
City Court Judge Jim Lamz, who is named as a defendant in the lawsuit, said Saturday he consulted with a constitutional scholar at the University of Michigan before concluding that the display’s constitutionality remains an open legal question.
Lamz declined to comment further Tuesday, saying through a spokeswoman that he is forbidden to speak about pending litigation. He referred questions to Mike Johnson, an attorney for the Alliance Defense Fund, a Christian organization that has agreed to represent the city court for free.
Johnson, who is based in Shreveport, did not return a call for comment, but he did release a statement.
“The ideas expressed in this painting aren’t specific to any one faith, and they certainly don’t establish a single state religion,” he said in the statement. “The reason Americans enjoy equal justice is because we are all created equal, endowed by (our) creator with certain unalienable rights. This painting is a clear reflection of the ideas in the Declaration of Independence.”
The ACLU is representing an anonymous complainant who said he has come into “direct and unwelcome contact” with the display, and he expects to do so again to fulfill legal obligations at the court. The display hangs in the court’s lobby, which has only one main entrance for visitors, according to the lawsuit.
The display has been in place since the courthouse opened in 1997 and has been maintained with taxpayer money, the lawsuit says. The display endorses the Christian faith, or specifically the Eastern Orthodox sect of Christianity, to the detriment of all other Christian denominations and all non-Christian religions, according to the suit.