Arab Ministers Optimistic over 'Historic' Talks with Olmert
The Arab League flag was not flying alongside the Star of David over Jerusalem. That seal of approval will have to wait for a peace agreement. But there was a whiff of optimism yeterday, a sense of opportunity, in the shimmering summer air. The coming months will test whether it is mirage or substance.
Tony Blair, in his new incarnation as international peacemaker, felt it earlier in the week. So did the foreign ministers of Egypt and Jordan, who arrived yesterday to persuade Israel to accept the 2002 Arab peace initiative, which offers recognition by all 22 Arab states in return for evacuation of lands occupied since the 1967 war.
The visit was heralded by Israel as a historic first. Whatever the diplomatic niceties, the pair were sent by the Arab League and will report back to its council of ministers next Monday. They hope to return with new ideas.
Ehud Olmert, the Prime Minister, told the Arab ministers that Israel was ready to discuss the initiative with "an open heart and an open head", though he still has reservations about some of its details, notably the "right" of Palestinian refugees to return to their old homes in Israel.
Tzipi Livni, the Foreign Minister, denied that Israel was stringing the Palestinians along. "Stagnation is not an option," she insisted. "A large segment of the Israeli population strives to advance a process that will lead to two states existing side by side... This is a crucial point in time. The Arab initiative is a historic opportunity for the Israeli-Arab and the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. We mustn't waste this opportunity."
Ahmed Aboul Gheit, the Egyptian Foreign Minister, said: "We feel it is Israel's intent to seriously work towards helping the Palestinians to achieve statehood... But talk alone will not do. We must move ahead in such a way that the Palestinians will sense that there is hope."
Abdel Ilah Khatib, Jordan's Foreign Minister, reinforced the message: "We came here to propose an Arab initiative for a comprehensive peace which grants legitimacy to the establishment of a Palestinian state with territorial continuity. To move on with the peace process we must create the necessary atmosphere." Israel, he maintained, had first of all to restore Palestinian freedom of movement.
Israeli and Arab ministers stressed, however, that the Arab League was not negotiating on behalf of the Palestinians. In public, at least, no one addressed the embarrassing fact that there are two Palestinian governments, one on the West Bank loyal to President Mahmoud Abbas, which embraces a two-state solution, and one in the Gaza Strip commanded by Hamas, which refuses to recognise Israel.
Shlomo Ben-Ami, a former Israeli foreign minister, argued earlier this week if the radicals are left out of the process, they will continue to act as spoilers.