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Arab League sends a delegation to Israel to restart peace talks

CAIRO, Egypt—The Arab League agreed in an unprecedented move on Thursday to send a top-level delegation to Israel to re-launch a five-year-old Arab initiative to solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Israel's embattled government welcomed the move, but Arab and Palestinian officials voiced skepticism.

"This is a historic meeting," Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni said, announcing the initiative after a 90-minute talk with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. "I came here today to meet the representatives of the Arab League, in order to see how to promote peace in our region."

Next week, the foreign ministers of Egypt and Jordan will travel to Israel to talk with Israel and Palestinians about a land-for-peace deal that was originally proposed by Saudi Arabia in 2002.

Livni stressed that the actual peace talks will be held between Israel and the Palestinians, and Egyptian Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit said neither Egypt nor Jordan had any intentions of discussing issues on behalf of any country or party in conflict with Israel.

"The concerned parties will negotiate for themselves, whether it's Palestine or Syria or Lebanon," Aboul Gheit said. "But the Arab League designated us to prepare the stage and atmosphere for such talks, to push forward the peace process."

Arab League spokesman Alaa Roshdi doubted that the initiative will bring results.

"We've been in a vicious circle of meetings since 1991, and the results in the end are zero," he said.

"It's a step in the right direction," said Palestinian chief negotiator Saeb Erekat about the talks. But he said all the major issues would have to be resolved—Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank, the setting of international borders and a resolution of the half-century old refugee issue.

The Saudi-designed peace initiative calls for Israeli withdrawal from all territories seized in the 1967 Middle East war, reaching a "just solution" for the Palestinian refugees and accepting the establishment of a sovereign Palestinian state with East Jerusalem as its capital. In return, the Arab states would regard the Arab-Israeli conflict as ended and establish diplomatic ties with Israel.

The Saudis launched the initiative in 2002, but Israel rejected the demands for a full withdrawal and the return of Palestinian families and their descendants.

But Israel has shifted its stance in recent months, and the Arab League revived the plan at a March summit. Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert meets Jordan's King Abdullah next Tuesday to discuss the plan further.

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(c) 2007, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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