Arab Delegation Takes Peace Proposal to Israel

An Arab League delegation takes new steps to peace in the Middle East. Delegates are in Israel to promote a peace proposal to end the Palestinian and Israeli conflict. But some are skeptical of the diplomatic moves.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

And I'm Steve Inskeep. Good morning.

Consider two meetings in two parts of the world where the topic of conversation was the same. At the White House here in Washington, Jordan's king had dinner with President Bush. King Abdullah asked the president to get more involved in Middle East peace efforts. In the region itself, members of the Arab League are paying an unusual visit. Its members include a number of nations that have gone to war with Israel over the years. But today an Arab League delegation is in Jerusalem, and that's where NPR's Eric Westervelt picks up the story. Eric, what's really happening here?

ERIC WESTERVELT: Well, Steve, this is an important but largely symbolic visit. These are foreign ministers of Egypt and Jordan, the two Arab countries that recognize Israel and have peace treaties with the Jewish state so it's not like Arab League representatives that don't recognize Israel are visiting. And this being the Middle East, even these symbolic visits can be disputed.

Egypt's state-run media service, Steve, has issued a statement saying the foreign minister is representing Egypt and Egypt only on this visit, not the Arab League. But other Arab League officials strongly dispute that and say this is indeed a precedent-setting visit with Arab League representatives sitting down for the first time for official talks with Israel in Jerusalem.

INSKEEP: Okay, so a symbolic visit, but apparently important enough for people to argue about who's really going and what they represent. We should mention that these two foreign ministers come with a peace proposal; not a new one, but a peace proposal.

WESTERVELT: That's right. This proposal will recognize Israel and normalize ties in exchange for a full Israeli withdrawal from land it conquered during the 1967 Six Day Mid-East War. And this, you know, it was proposed five years ago and Israel reacted very coldly to it publicly at the time, especially since it includes, Steve, not only a call for a full withdrawal from the occupied West Bank and the Golan Heights, but also calls for a right of return and what some Arabs call a just solution for all Palestinian refugees. And that remains highly controversial in Israel.

But today Israeli officials I have spoken to say they hope these new talks about the Arab initiative might help reinvigorate the long-stalled Arab-Israeli peace process. So, Steve, they're talking about talking. And as you know, here, that can sometimes be seen as a kind of progress.

INSKEEP: Well, let's talk about who is not being talked with. Hamas, which controls all of Gaza, as you know, Eric, is not being talked to by the United States or Europeans or Israel or the Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas.

WESTERVELT: That's right. Israel and the U.S. and many in this quartet of Mid-East peacemakers say, look, Hamas is a terrorist group. It doesn't recognize Israel so there's nothing at all to talk about. But the policy of isolating Hamas after it won elections in early 2006 largely backfired when Hamas says it was forced to take by the barrel of a gun in the Gaza Strip what it won in free and fair democratic elections.

So the policy continues nonetheless to be to try to isolate Hamas and support its rival, Fatah and President Mahmoud Abbas who is now really only in charge of the West Bank. Some prominent officials, however, including former U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell, the former head of Israel's Mossad, Ephraim Halevy, are saying publicly, look, you have to talk to your enemies, you have to engage Hamas, however distasteful it might be.

INSKEEP: Backing away from the specific meetings, or non-meetings as it may be in specific proposals, does it seem that there's a mood on either side or any side for peace right now, Eric?

WESTERVELT: Well, people on the street in the Palestinian territories remain deeply skeptical. They say this is largely - all this flurry of diplomatic activity is more talk and they're not seeing their daily lives improve. I mean, Hamas controls all of Gaza, home to one and a half million Palestinians, and they continue to be left out of any talks or any discussions. Tony Blair, the former British prime minister, yesterday on a visit here said he felt, quote, "a sense of possibility" in his new job as the quartet's mediator.

But Blair's mandate is very limited right now to trying to improve the Palestinian economy in the West Bank. And people so far are saying we aren't seeing any tangible progress on the ground. So they're skeptical of all these diplomatic moves.

INSKEEP: Eric, thanks.

WESTERVELT: You're welcome.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's Eric Westervelt in Jerusalem.

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Arab League Presents Peace Plan to Israel

The foreign ministers of Egypt and Jordan formally presented an Arab peace plan during a historic visit to Israel on Wednesday.

The ministers arrived as representatives of the Arab League, the first time the 22-member group has sent a delegation to the Jewish state. The League's peace plan envisions full recognition of Israel in return for withdrawal from lands captured in during the 1967 Middle East war.

At a news conference with Israeli President Shimon Peres, Jordan's foreign minister, Abdul-Ilah Khatib, said he and Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit were "extending a hand of peace" on behalf of the region and expressed hope that the gesture would "create the momentum needed to resume fruitful and productive negotiations" between Israel and the Palestinians and the rest of the Arab world.

The visit, which came a day after former British Prime Minister Tony Blair made his first trip as new Mideast peace envoy, is part of a flurry of diplomatic efforts meant to restart peace talks after a seven-year lull.

Egypt and Jordan both have peace treaties with Israel and have sent their leaders to the country before, but never on behalf of the Arab League, which has traditionally been hostile toward the Jewish state.

Foreign ministry spokesman Mark Regev said the visit was historic.

"This is the first time that a delegation is coming here under the auspices of the Arab League," he said.

The Arab League asked Jordan and Egypt to take the lead in pushing forward their newly revived peace plan, which offers a comprehensive peace agreement in exchange for Israel's withdrawal from all territories captured in 1967.

Israel rejected the plan 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.

Israel has welcomed the plan as a basis for negotiations, but raised concerns about certain aspects. Israel rejects a full withdrawal from the West Bank and east Jerusalem. It also objects to the plan's apparent call for the return of Palestinians who became refugees in the 1948 Mideast war and their descendants.

From NPR reports and The Associated Press

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