Arab League envoys paid a historic visit to Israel on Wednesday to present a plan calling for a comprehensive regional settlement, saying they were extending “a hand of peace” on behalf of the Arab world.
The one-day visit by the foreign ministers of Egypt and Jordan marked the first time the 22-member group has sent representatives to Israel. The Arab League peace plan envisions full recognition of Israel in return for an Israeli withdrawal from lands captured in the 1967 Middle East war.
The visit highlights a dramatic change of direction for the Arab body, which actively pursued Israel’s destruction after the Jewish state was created in 1948. The league refused to recognize Israel for decades afterward and suspended Egypt in 1979 for a decade after it become the first Arab state to make peace.
In recent years, many of the league’s member states have adopted a more conciliatory tone toward Israel as they became more concerned about the rising influence of Iran’s hard-line regime and al-Qaida’s brand of extremist Islam.
“We are extending a hand of peace on behalf of the whole region to you, and we hope that we will be able to create the momentum needed to resume fruitful and productive negotiations” between Israel and the Palestinians and the rest of the Arab world, Jordan’s foreign minister, Abdul-Ilah Khatib, said at a news conference with Israeli President Shimon Peres.
Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit urged Israel to consider the plan seriously.
“We hope that upon our return, we would also convey to the Arab League … the responses of Israel and I hope that such responses will be positive,” he said.
The envoys are expected to discuss the visit with their Arab League on Monday part of a flurry of diplomatic efforts meant to restart peace talks after a seven-year lull. The international community’s new Mideast envoy, former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, made his first voyage to the region this week, and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is expected next week.
Israeli officials and the Arab envoys stressed that the Arab initiative was supposed to complement, rather than replace, direct negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians.
“Israel is looking forward to discussing the Arab peace initiative, and I will be more than happy that the next time you come, you bring with you ministers from more Arab countries” that back the plan, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert told the envoys.
The Arab League asked Jordan and Egypt to take the lead in pushing forward their newly revived peace plan, which offers Israel peace in exchange for a withdrawal from all territories captured in 1967. Both countries have peace treaties with Israel and have sent their leaders to the country before, but never on the league’s behalf.
Israel rejected the plan when Saudi Arabia first proposed it in 2002, at the height of the Palestinian uprising, but softened its resistance after moderate Arab states endorsed the plan again in March.
Khatib said the Arab offer was “major opportunity” that would “provide Israel with security, recognition and acceptance” in the Middle East.
Israel has sought such recognition for decades, but the delegation’s visit received scant media attention and caused no discernible excitement.
Meir Litvak, a scholar of Mideastern history at Tel Aviv University, ascribed the low-key reception to an Israeli public jaded by failed peace efforts.
“There is disbelief among Israelis in the chance of a real agreement,” Litvak said. “Most people believe in a two-state solution, but have grave doubts that the Palestinians can keep an agreement.”
Though Israel has welcomed the plan as a basis for negotiations, it has said parts of it are unacceptable.
Israel rejects a full withdrawal from the West Bank and east Jerusalem, hoping to retain areas heavily populated by Israelis, and strenuously objects to the plan’s apparent call for the return of Palestinians who became refugees in the 1948 Mideast war and their descendants some 4.4 million people today, according to the U.N. Israel says any large-scale influx of refugees would mean the end of Israel as a Jewish state.
“I think it would be a mistake today … to start arguing about every clause” of the plan, Livni said, pointing out that its central feature, formation of an independent Palestinian living in peace next to Israel, was shared by the Israeli government and moderate Arab states.
Moderate Arab countries and the West have been pushing for renewed Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking since Gaza fell last month to Hamas, a group that refuses to recognize Israel’s right to exist and has killed more than 250 Israelis in suicide bombings.
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas ejected Hamas from the government after the Gaza takeover and set up an emergency Cabinet of loyalists that has Western and moderate Arab backing.
Israel has welcomed Abbas’ government and made a series of confidence-building gestures, while saying it is too early to resume negotiations on a final peace deal. Israeli officials say recent talks have been expanded to include the general outlines of a Palestinian state, while still avoiding the difficult issues at the core of the conflict.
In the West Bank, Palestinian government spokesman Riad al-Malki called Wednesday’s visit “part of a broad Arab effort to help the Palestinians.”