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Israel gets ´historic´ Arab visit - Envoys urge action on Palestinian state (CHICAGO TRIBUNE) By Joel Greenberg JERUSALEM, ISRAEL 07/26/07) Source: http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/nationworld/chi-mideast26_joeljul26,1,2443653.story
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The foreign ministers of Egypt and Jordan, paying the first visit to Israel by envoys of the Arab League, formally presented an Arab peace plan Wednesday and urged an early resumption of negotiations on Palestinian statehood.
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The Arab plan, adopted in 2002 and affirmed this year, offers Israel peace and normal relations in return for a full withdrawal from the territories it captured in the 1967 Middle East war, establishment of a Palestinian state and an "agreed upon" solution to the problem of Palestinian refugees.
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"This serious offer constitutes a major opportunity of historic magnitude," said Jordanian Foreign Minister Abdelelah al-Khatib, "We are extending our hand in peace and coexistence that will make Israel part of this region."
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Al-Khatib spoke at a news conference with his Egyptian counterpart, Ahmed Aboul Gheit, and Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni. The Arab ministers also met Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, President Shimon Peres and members of parliament.
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Israeli officials called the visit a historic step by the Arab League, which declared war on Israel when it was established in 1948, refused any contact with the country for decades and suspended Egypt for 10 years after it signed a peace agreement with Israel in 1979.
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Some Arab League states softened their stance toward Israel after it signed the Oslo self-rule accords with the Palestinians in 1993, followed a year later by a peace treaty with Jordan. More recently, concerns about the rising influence of Iran and the emergence of Al Qaeda´s brand of extremist Islam have driven some member states to back peace efforts as a means of stabilizing the region.
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Negotiations urged
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Delegated to present the peace plan to Israel after it was endorsed at the Arab League summit in Saudi Arabia last March, the visiting ministers said they had come to push for a speedy resumption of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations leading to a Palestinian state.
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"A lot of the responses of the region will depend on the bilateral [talks]. That is the crux of the Arab position," Aboul Gheit said. "I think they understand today in Israel that we are coming forward, we are offering, but do what is necessary and what is needed with the Palestinians. This is the message."
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The presentation of the Arab League plan comes at a time of intensified diplomacy in the region after the takeover of the Gaza Strip by Hamas and the establishment of a new Palestinian government in the West Bank by President Mahmoud Abbas that has won broad international backing.
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On Tuesday former British Prime Minister Tony Blair met Israeli and Palestinian leaders on his first trip to the region as an international Middle East envoy.
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Livni called the ministers´ mission a "historic visit" at a moment of "opportunity that perhaps we haven´t seen in many years," in which Arab nations were prepared to provide broad support for talks between Israel and the Palestinians.
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Although Egyptian and Jordanian leaders have visited Israel, Wednesday´s trip by the ministers was the first on behalf of the Arab League, most of whose 22 members have no diplomatic relations with Israel.
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Amr Moussa, the Arab League secretary general, insisted that the two ministers were not representing the organization but simply reporting to the Israelis on the results of the Arab summit.
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"They are not acting under the banner of the Arab League," he said. "They represent two Arab countries that for certain circumstances entered into peace accords and official diplomatic relations."
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New Israeli response
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Israel dismissed the Arab peace plan, proposed by Saudi Arabia, when it was first adopted at an Arab League summit in Beirut in 2002, at the height of the Palestinian uprising. But after the plan was endorsed this year, Olmert said that the initiative contained some positive elements. Still, Israel rejects a full withdrawal to the 1967 lines or any return of Palestinian refugees to their former homes in Israel.
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Urging swift movement on the Palestinian-Israeli track, al-Khatib said "there is a need for a precise and speedy timetable, because we have an historic opportunity we don´t want to miss, and we urge Israel not to miss it. ... Time is not on the side of the parties who want peace."
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Aboul Gheit said there was need for more than talk about a vaguely defined "political horizon," a phrase used by Rice to give a diplomatic dimension to meetings between Olmert and Abbas that have focused on confidence-building measures.
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Olmert, badly weakened domestically by public criticism of his handling of an inconclusive war last summer against Hezbollah, has balked at entering potentially controversial negotiations with the Palestinians on the core issues of a final peace agreement, including borders, refugees and the status of Jerusalem.
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The Palestinians, for their part, are deeply divided politically, with Hamas controlling Gaza and the rival Fatah movement led by Abbas dominant in the West Bank.
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But as the Arab ministers pressed their case Wednesday, Olmert raised the prospect of more substantial talks. He 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."
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Olmert added that there were "no precise timetables or stages established yet." ---------- (jogreenberg@tribune.com (Copyright © 2007, Chicago Tribune 07/26/07)
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