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Arab League envoys due in Israel for historic talks

Peace bid revived to bolster Abbas

JERUSALEM -- 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 Mahmoud Abbas, the embattled Palestinian president.

The announcement yesterday by Israeli and Arab diplomats was made the same day that 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 League visit would be a diplomatic coup for Israel. The 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's armed takeover of the Gaza Strip last month.

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

Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Mark Regev said the foreign ministers will lead an Arab League mission to Israel to discuss the Arab peace plan. The proposal offers to 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 League's official point men for the Arab peace initiative.

The Israeli foreign minister, Tzipi Livni, met them in Cairo in May 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 yesterday in Jerusalem with the 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.

Israel has welcomed aspects of the plan, while rejecting its call for a return of all of the West Bank and an implied demand to resettle within Israeli borders the Palestinian families who became refugees from the 1948 war that followed Israel's creation.

Moderate Arab countries and the West have been pushing for renewed Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking since Gaza fell to Hamas, a group that refuses to recognize Israel's right to exist and has killed more than 250 Israelis in suicide bombings. Abbas ejected Hamas from the Palestinian government after the Gaza takeover and set up an emergency Cabinet of loyalists that has Western and moderate Arab backing.

Regev said renewed relations with the Palestinian government after the shake-up and the linkage to a broader Middle East settlement will be at the heart of discussions with the Arab League envoys.

"They will be talking about how the Arab peace proposal can help energize the rapprochement between Israel and the Palestinians," he said.

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 good-will gesture meant to bolster Abbas.

Although the Cabinet yesterday formally approved the prisoner release, the timing remained unclear, because Israeli security officials want to free only prisoners whose terms are almost up, while Olmert wants a more significant gesture.

"We want to use every means that can strengthen the moderates within the Palestinian Authority, to encourage them to take the path that we believe can create conditions for the start of meaningful discussions," Olmert said at the opening of the Cabinet meeting.

Palestinians criticized Israel for not consulting with them on who should be freed, and said the matter should be referred to a joint committee on prisoners that the two sides set up two years ago.

"The prisoners issue must be dealt with through this committee and should not happen in unilateral steps," said Saeb Erekat, a top aide to Abbas.

In the West Bank late yesterday, Israeli forces ambushed and killed a Palestinian militant from the Al Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades in the town of Jenin, Palestinian security and hospital officials said.

Ministers in Abbas's government, meanwhile, visited Palestinians who have been stranded in Egypt's Sinai Peninsula because the Egypt-Gaza border crossing has been closed for nearly a month, promising to work to get them home.