A delegation of Arab foreign ministers may visit Israel soon in an effort to advance the 2002 Arab peace initiative first proposed by Saudi Arabia and given new life in recent weeks.
News of the trip follows Wednesday’s meeting in Cairo of Arab League foreign ministers. The United States, also anxious to promote the plan, is considering calling for a regional summit meeting that would include delegates from Saudi Arabia, according to Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, who appeared before the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee on Wednesday. He said the summit would include representatives of the U.S., the United Nations, Russia and the European Union, as well as Israel, the Palestinian Authority, Egypt, Jordan, Morocco and Saudi Arabia.
Should a delegation be dispatched by the Arab League to visit Israel, it would consist of representatives from Egypt, Jordan and the Palestinians because the Arab League’s 13 governments previously decided that those that do not have relations with Israel would not participate in such contacts, according to Yossi Alpher, an Israeli analyst.
Although a visit by such a delegation would be “no big deal because we already meet with them anyway, it would be important because it would show a readiness on the part of the Arab League to meet with Israel,” he said.
Olmert clearly would prefer that the Saudis be part of that delegation because they are “taking a leading role” in advancing the peace proposal, Alpher said. The prime minister made a point of singling out Saudi Arabia when he spoke of those who would be invited to the regional summit.
“I fear he has a misperception that he will be negotiating with the Arab League about peace with the Palestinians, but they are going to say [Israel] has to negotiate peace with the Palestinians directly,” Alpher said.At a meeting last Sunday between Olmert and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, the two men discussed the “political horizon” for the peace process,” according to Saeb Erekat, the PLO’s chief negotiator. He termed it a “positive development,” noting that the Palestinians endorsed the Arab peace initiative. Erekat added that the regularly scheduled next meeting of the two leaders later this month in Jericho would “deal with issues of political horizon, and this is most important for us.”
Alpher, who is co-editor of the Israeli-Palestinian Web site bitterlemons.org, said the Arab peace initiative is “the only ray of light you can find anywhere in the peace process.”
The Arab peace proposal calls for all Arab states to establish normal relations with Israel in return for Israel returning to its pre-1967 border, allowing a Palestinian state with East Jerusalem as its capital, and reaching an acceptable solution on the Palestinian refugee issue.
Olmert aides were quoted as saying last weekend that the prime minister was “leaning in favor” of approving contacts with the Arab League working groups should one contact him. But Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit told reporters that although one of the working groups might contact Israel, they are “not mandated to negotiate and I do not imagine that they will negotiate on behalf of anyone, whether the Palestinians, Syria or Lebanon.”
Their sole purpose, he said, would be to spell out the “political idea behind the Arab effort and explain what is meant by land for peace.” And he said Egypt, which on Tuesday announced the arrest of an Egyptian nuclear engineer on charges of spying for Israel, might not be part of the delegation. It was the second time this year that an Egyptian has been arrested and charged with spying for Israel.
Israeli authorities said they know nothing of the matter other than press reports, but they said they had information that Iran was attempting to recruit Israelis to spy for it.
The Arab League meeting occurred the same day U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates arrived in Israel to discuss the Iranian nuclear threat, the war in Iraq and the proposed American arms sale to the Saudis, which Israel opposes.
Yuval Steinitz, a Knesset member and former chairman of the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, said he opposes the arms sale because “unfortunately Saudi Arabia is still a threat to Israel.”
“It never participated in past wars, but we cannot be confident about the future despite the Saudi peace proposal [adopted by the Arab League], which in my view is a non-starter,” Steinitz told The Jewish Week during a visit here this week.
Olmert has said there are some positive elements of the plan, but Steinitz said he opposed a return to the pre-1967 border and the right-of-return to Israel for Palestinians who fled during Israel’s War of Independence in 1948. And, he said, “we are not ready to divide Jerusalem.”
“People don’t understand what that involves,” Steinitz said. “It would mean that Palestinian police who today are Hamas members would be patrolling the roads with automatic rifles. They would be above the Western Wall and they would patrol the center of Jerusalem. According to the Palestinians, two-thirds of the city belongs to them. Any division of Jerusalem would not just be giving up some neighborhoods, it would mean the destruction of Jerusalem … the end of Jerusalem as we know it. You cannot divide Jerusalem without ruining it.”
In another development, the Winograd Committee investigating last summer’s war with Hezbollah is expected to release its interim findings within the next two weeks. Israel’s supreme court directed that the committee release the censored testimonies of Olmert, Defense Minister Amir Peretz and former chief of General Staff Dan Halutz before it publishes its report. Committee members have asked the court to reconsider its decision, but Menachem Hofnung, an expert on Israeli law and politics at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, said that in the end the court will have the final say.
“The court may amend its decision, but if it doesn’t I don’t see the commission ignoring the last word of the court,” he said. “They [committee members] are threatening to resign, but I would be surprised if they do. It is only a maneuver to get the court to amend its decision.”
Gerald Steinberg, a professor of political studies at Bar-Ilan University, said the court’s decision to compel the committee to release the testimonies despite committee assurances to witnesses that their testimony would remain secret, has drawn much criticism from the public.“People won’t tell the truth if they know their testimony will be released,” he said.
Observers said that if the committee is sharply critical of the way Olmert and Peretz handled the war, as is widely believed, it could force their immediate ouster. Halutz has already resigned.
Should Olmert be forced out, it could compel early elections. And should Peretz lose a Labor Party leadership election May 28, his successor could pull the Labor Party out of the current coalition government, thereby almost assuredly forcing early elections.