Khatib, Aboul Gheit delay visit to Israel

The foreign ministers of Jordan and Egypt postponed until July 25 their first visit to Israel on behalf of the Arab League to revive a long-stalled Arab peace initiative, officials said on Tuesday.Foreign Minister Abdul Ilah Khatib and his Egyptian counterpart Ahmed Aboul Gheit had tentatively planned to visit Israel on Thursday. But Aboul Gheit said the visit was postponed due to “special considerations” of Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, Egyptian state news agency MENA said.

Olmert’s office said the talks were put off “due to a prior commitment” on his part, and that the Egyptian and Jordanian foreign ministers chose July 25 as the next available date.

A visit on Thursday would have coincided with the anniversary of the start of last year’s war in Lebanon.

The Arab League talks would follow a meeting between Olmert and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas expected as early as next Monday, as well the scheduled visit next week of US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.

The visit by the Egyptian and Jordanian foreign ministers would be the first by the Arab League working group, set up in April to hold contacts with Israel over the initiative.

The land-for-peace initiative offers Israel normal ties with all Arab states in return for a full withdrawal from the lands it seized in the 1967 Middle East war, creation of a Palestinian state and a “just solution” for Palestinian refugees.

Israeli officials said last week they believed the initiative was on hold because of Saudi objections to Western efforts to isolate Hamas Islamists who seized control of the Gaza Strip last month.

Israel has asked the Arab League to expand the size of the working group beyond Egypt and Jordan, which already have full relations with Israel.

The Arab League said the group could be expanded if Israel met a list of Arab demands, including lifting sanctions against the Palestinian government and an end to work on Jewish settlements and on the barrier it is building through the West Bank.

Israel has lifted sanctions on the emergency government Abbas formed last month in the occupied West Bank following Hamas’ violent takeover of the Gaza Strip.

Olmert has said that he sees positive points in the Arab peace initiative. But Israel opposes the return of Palestinian refugees to their former homes in what is now the Jewish state, and wants to hold on to major settlement blocs in the West Bank.

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