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French Version

Jordan presses Israel to embrace Arab overture

Jewish state 'should not squander' its chance

Jordan's King Abdullah II urged Israel on Thursday not to lose an "historic opportunity" for peace by turning down an Arab initiative, while the Jewish state called on the Arab League to show "flexibility" by agreeing to wider talks over the proposal.

The monarch's message was conveyed during talks at the royal palace with Israeli Speaker and acting President Dalia Itzik in the first meeting by a top Israeli official with an Arab leader to discuss the initiative that was relaunched at an Arab League summit last month in Riyadh.

"Israel should not squander this historic opportunity that the Arab peace plan offers to achieve Middle East peace ... which will ensure Israel's recognition by all Arab states and real integration into the region," a palace statement quoted the king as having told Itzik.

Abdullah told Itzik in a closed-door meeting that the initiative "reflects Arab commitment to peace" and "constitutes a historic opportunity to achieve Middle East peace and end decades of conflict between Arabs and Israelis," the palace statement said.

Jordan is spearheading an Arab campaign to get Israel to accept the plan, which offers it normal ties with all Arab countries in return for a full withdrawal from the lands the Jewish state seized in the 1967 war, creation of a Palestinian state and a "just solution" for Palestinian refugees.

Arab foreign ministers on Wednesday named Egypt and Jordan as part of a working group in charge of contacting the Israelis and trying to persuade them to accept the plan.

Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni said her country was prepared to meet with the group but wanted other Arab states that do not already have full relations with Israel to take part from the start.

"Israel, on its part, is open to dialogue," Livni's office quoted her as having said during a close-door meeting with visiting US Defense Secretary Robert Gates.

But she added that the Arab League should show "some flexibility" in order to "reinforce the positive steps that Israel takes."

"Those Arab countries, with whom we don't have relations, could be a party to such a process from the start, instead of setting conditions," Livni told Gates.

In his talks with Itzik, Abdullah urged Israel not to hamper Palestinian aspirations for statehood and end work on Jewish settlements and on the barrier it is building through the occupied West Bank, activities that are widely seen as obstacles to the emergence of a viable state.

"The first step to ending the Arab-Israeli conflict is the fulfillment of Palestinians' legitimate rights, foremost of which is establishment of an independent Palestinian state on Palestinian national territory," he said.

"Israelis and Palestinians need to take steps that will build confidence between them," the king added. "These steps would build on the political momentum in the region to advance the peace process and achieve on-the-ground progress."

The palace said he also stressed the need for the Jewish state to support Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas "as he works to relaunch negotiations with Israel and to alleviate the harsh living conditions of the Palestinian people."

The attitude of Israel and the United States toward the peace plan has changed in public but analysts say it is not yet clear whether Israel is prepared to be more flexible on "final status" issues such as the borders of a Palestinian state and Palestinian refugees.

Washington reacted coolly to the Arab League's decision to form a working group of two countries, echoing Israel's demands for more Arab governments to be involved.

"It's a start," State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said Wednesday of the working group. "We've talked about it for some time, about the fact that of course we would like to see an initiative in which there were more participants in some form of direct dialogue, discussion with Israel."

Asked whether the Saudis should be involved, McCormack said that was up to the Saudis to decide. He said the fact that the peace initiative was revived in at a meeting in Saudi Arabia was a good sign.

"But the pace of any sort of engagement between Saudi officials - Saudi Arabia and Israel - is going to have to be a decision for both of those parties to make," McCormack said.

A statement issued Thursday by Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's office said he and Gates saw "strategic changes" in which "moderate" Arab states saw "extremist Islam" as "the immediate and main danger."

"The fact today that the Arab League is apparently sending a delegation to Israel, this is of importance," Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Mark Regev told reporters. "We believe that the Arab side can come to the talks with its position. We will come to the talks with our position."

Marseille,05 03 2007
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