Archive for Monday, July 9, 2007

Israel to get first visit from Arab League delegation

Cabinet formally approves release of 250 Palestinian prisoners

July 9, 2007

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— The 22-country Arab League will send envoys on a historic first mission to Israel this week to discuss a sweeping Arab peace initiative and how it might prop up embattled Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, Israeli and Arab diplomats said Sunday.

Former prisoner Hanadi Kandeel, 23, puts up a poster showing female prisoners held in Israeli jails at a center for Palestinian women in the West Bank town of Jenin. The Israeli Cabinet on Sunday approved the release of 250 Palestinian prisoners, officials said, in the government's latest gesture of support for moderate Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.

Former prisoner Hanadi Kandeel, 23, puts up a poster showing female prisoners held in Israeli jails at a center for Palestinian women in the West Bank town of Jenin. The Israeli Cabinet on Sunday approved the release of 250 Palestinian prisoners, officials said, in the government's latest gesture of support for moderate Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.

The announcement came the same day Israel's Cabinet approved the release of 250 Palestinian prisoners, hoping to bolster Abbas in his power struggle with the Islamic militant Hamas.

An official Arab League visit would be a diplomatic coup for Israel. The Arab League historically has been hostile toward the Jewish state but has grown increasingly conciliatory in response to the expanding influence of Islamic extremists in the region - a concern underscored by Hamas' violent takeover of the Gaza Strip last month.

Jordan's foreign ministry said the Jordanian and Egyptian foreign ministers would arrive Thursday in Jerusalem for talks with Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and other Israeli officials.

Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Mark Regev said the foreign ministers would lead an Arab League mission to Israel to discuss the Arab peace plan, which would trade full Arab recognition of Israel for an Israeli withdrawal from all lands captured in the 1967 Mideast war and the creation of a Palestinian state.

"This is the first time the Arab League is coming to Israel," 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."

The two foreign ministers, Abdul-Ilah al-Khatib of Jordan and Ahmed Aboul Gheit of Egypt, whose countries have peace agreements with Israel, have been designated as the Arab League's official point men for the Arab peace initiative.

Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni met them in May in Cairo for the first official, public talks between the two sides, and the Arab peace initiative was the focus.

In another gesture of support for the moderate Palestinian leadership, Livni met late Sunday in Jerusalem with Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, Israeli media reported. Several days ago Fayyad met with Defense Minister Ehud Barak.

Israel rejected the plan outright 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.

Last month, Egypt hosted a summit of the Israeli, Palestinian and Jordanian leaders to show support for Abbas and to discuss the resumption of peace talks.

At that meeting Olmert pledged to free 250 Palestinian prisoners from Israeli jails in a goodwill gesture meant to bolster Abbas.

On Sunday, the Cabinet formally approved the prisoner release. But the timing remained unclear, reflecting a dispute between security officials, who want to free only prisoners whose terms are almost up, and Olmert, who wants a more significant gesture.

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