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Arab League To Make Historic Visit To Israel


http://gdb.rferl.org/F8F62172-17EA-483E-BAF9-77743D44F024_w203.jpg --> http://gdb.rferl.org/F8F62172-17EA-483E-BAF9-77743D44F024_mw800_mh600.jpg (RFE/RL) July 9, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- For the first time ever, the 22-nation Arab League is set to send a delegation to Israel. Its mission: to discuss a sweeping peace initiative with the Jewish state, as well as the threat posed by Hamas and other Islamic extremist movements.


On July 12, the foreign ministers of Jordan and Egypt, which have peace agreements with Israel, will meet with Israeli officials in Jerusalem.


The first visit to Israel by Arab League envoys holds great symbolic importance. At the same time, it offers a chance to kick-start the peace process, which given the lack of progress in recent years would amount to achieving concrete results.

"From its inception the Arab League has been hostile to Israel. It will be the first time we'll be flying the Arab League flag," an Israeli spokesman said.

"Of course, they will discuss with the Israeli prime minister and the Israeli government, the coming peace process," Bassem Eid, head of the Palestinian Human Rights Monitoring Group, told RFE/RL from his office in East Jerusalem. "And on the other side, they will discuss with the Palestinian government, with [Palestinian Authority] President [Mahmud] Abbas, the whole issue of the conflict between Hamas and Fatah. So I hope from such a visit, we are -- the Palestinians and the Israelis -- going to eat real fruits."


Arab League Secretary Amr Musa announced the on July 8, after Israel approved the release of 250 Palestinian prisoners.


Responding to the announcement, Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Mark Regev said: "From its inception the Arab League has been hostile to Israel. It will be the first time we'll be flying the Arab League flag."


Changing Moods


Regev added that the delegation would discuss the so-called Arab peace plan. That plan would trade full Arab recognition of Israel for an Israeli withdrawal from the lands it captured in the 1967 Middle East war and the creation of a Palestinian state.


When Saudi Arabia first proposed the plan in 2002, Israel rejected it. That was during the height of the Palestinian uprising.


Now, Israel appears to have softened its resistance after moderate Arab states endorsed the plan again in March, when they also expressed concerns about Iran's growing influence in the region.


Also figuring into the latest shift in diplomatic mood is the reality on the ground in the Palestinian territories, which are now split in two. The Islamic movement Hamas now rules Gaza, while Abbas's secular Fatah movement retains control of the West Bank.


"I think that we must put a lot of hope on such kinds of visits, and also to appreciate on the other side -- the Jordanians, the Egyptians, and even the Saudis -- their efforts to solve the Israeli-Palestinian and also the Israeli-Arab conflict," Eid explained.


Israel, along with the United States and the European Union, has sought to strengthen Abbas in the face of Hamas, which all three consider a terrorist organization.


In another sign of support for the moderate Palestinian leadership, Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni met on July 8 with Palestinian Prime Minster Salam Fayyad for the first time since he took office.


Next Steps


Following the historic July 12 meeting in Jerusalem, diplomacy is expected to continue.


With former British Prime Minister Tony Blair now appointed its envoy, the international Middle East peace Quartet -- the United States, Russia, the European Union, and the UN -- is tentatively scheduled to meet in Cairo on July 16.


U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is due in the region at the same time, with expected stops in Israel and the Palestinian territories.


(with material from Reuters, AFP, AP)

Islam In The West
U.S. Congressman-elect Keith Ellison celebrates in November 2006 after becoming the first Muslim ever elected to the U.S. House of Representatives (epa)

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