Former Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert meeting former Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak – AP.
Former Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert meeting former Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak. Photo by AP
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During his term as prime minister, Ehud Olmert rejected an invitation by former Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak and other Arab leaders to address an Arab League convention and set in motion a regional process based on the Saudi peace initiative.

Haaretz has learned that the initiative first took place in a conference hosted by the Spanish Foreign Ministry in Madrid in 2007, marking 15 years to the original Madrid conference, where talks between Israel, the Palestinians, Jordan, Lebanon and Syria were initiated. The 2007 convention was attended by senior officials from Syria, Jordan and Lebanon, as well as Palestinians and Israelis.

The Israeli delegation included Deputy Prime Minister Dan Meridor (who did not hold an official position at the time), former ministers Moshe Shahal and Shlomo Ben Ami, Member of Knesset Yisrael Hasson (Kadima) and former MKs Dalia Rabin, Ophir Pines and Colette Avital.

The Palestinian Authority was represented by Fatah leaders Jibril Rajoub and Nabil Shaath. Several European foreign ministers also attended the assembly, along with the European Union's foreign policy chief Javier Solana.

In a speech delivered in Arabic, Shahal called on the Arab League to invite officials of the "Peace Circle," which he headed at the time, to present their response to the Arab peace initiative, as well as the Saudi Peace initiative from 2002. Such invitation, Shahal suggested, would helpful in exploring the possibility to advance toward a comprehensive solution based on the Arab initiative, which offered Israel peace and the normalization of relationship with all Arab League nations in return for an Israeli withdrawal from the territories captured in 1967, and an agreed-upon solution of the refugee problem based on UN resolution 194.

In a meeting with Osama El-Baz, Mubarak's advisor at the time, Shahal was asked if there was a possibility of mobilizing the Olmert government to support the Arab initiative. Shahal expressed willingness to offer Olmert to declare that, in principle, Israel was ready to hold talks with all Arab states concerning a regional agreement, based on the frameworks of the initiative, on condition that Olmert be invited to present the declaration in a special Arab League assembly, as former Egyptian president Anwar Sadat was invited to address the Knesset in Jerusalem in 1977.

Enthusiastic about the idea, within hours El-Baz notified Shahal that he had spoken with Mubarak, who was willing to promote an Arab League resolution on holding a special convention. Prior to the move, El-Baz requested Shahal to confirm that Olmert is on board.

At El-Baz's request, Rajoub and Shaath were informed of the initiative. Rajoub said he was set to fly directly to Cairo to encourage Mubarak to promote the move. Returning from Cairo, Rajoub met the Israeli group in Tel Aviv and informed them that the Egyptian president had decided to move ahead. In the days that followed, El-Baz informed Shahal that Mubarak had received support for the idea from the kings of Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Morroco, as well as the Gulf States.

On February 25th 2007, a meeting was held in Tel Aviv in preparation for the Cairo meeting. Following this, the Egyptian Foreign Office announced that "Round Table" conference would be held in Cairo on April 15th. El-Baz informed Shahal that Mubarak ordered Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul-Gheit to hold a preliminary meeting with him, along with an Israeli envoy sent by the Israeli prime minister. Several other Arab officials were supposed to attend the meeting, including Arab League secretary at the time Amr Moussa and representatives from Jordan, Morocco, Qatar, the Palestinian Authority, and perhaps even Saudi Arabia.

Leading up to the "Round Table" talks, Ehud Barak's former advisor Pini Meidan-Shani attended a preparatory meeting in Cairo on the 18th and 19th of March, reporting its results to the "Peace Circle" group.

On March 21st, Shahal and Dalia Rabin met with Olmert and informed him of the talks with the Egyptians, requesting his blessing. Shahal suggested that a team appointed by the prime minister give the Israeli representatives detailed directions concerning the positions presented in the meeting.

Olmert responded that the "idea was commendable," adding however that unfortunately he lacked political support, and that his standing in the polls was far from encouraging. He suggested that Shahal would attend the Cairo meeting, declaring that he is doing so with the knowledge of the Israeli prime minister. Shahal answered that he would do so only if sanctioned to say that he is acting at the prime minister's authority. Olmert then requested that he be given time to consider the matter, promising a decision would be reached shortly.

Meanwhile in a Riyad summit in March, the Arab League decided to send the foreign ministers of Egypt and Jordan to Israel in attempt to raise public and political support for the initiative. Since the minister's visit was scheduled for April, it was decided that the preparatory meeting in Cairo would be postponed to May. At the same time, the U.S. began setting in motion negotiations with the Palestinians, and decided to hold an international conference in Annapolis with the participation of Arab foreign ministers and senior officials.

Choosing the Palestinian front over the regional, in his speech at Annapolis Olmert referred to the Arab initiative in a positive manner, stopping short of saying that he would be ready to hold negotiations in its framework, or accept it in principle. The prime minister said he "was aware" of the initiative, "respects its importance," "acknowledges its contribution," and has no doubt that "we will consider it yet again as part of the negotiations we will hold with the Palestinian leadership."

Attempts made by U.S. secretary of state at the time Condoleezza Rice to persuade Saudi Arabia to declare normalization gestures with Israel as part of the Annapolis conference failed since the Saudis were adamant that any such gestures would only follow an Israeli acceptance of the principals presented in the Arab initiative.

The negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians following Annapolis put an end to the effort for a regional move.

In the fall of 2008, Shahal called El-Baz hoping to revive the idea of inviting Olmert to address the Arab League. El-Baz offered to put the move on hold until after election results in Israel will be known.

Verifying the details, Shahal told Haaretz that "sadly, an opportunity to bring on an historic change in Israel's relations with the Arab world was missed."

Olmert's advisor Yaakov Galanti confirmed that the meeting with Rabin and Shahal had taken place in March 2007, adding that "for a variety of reasons, which we cannot disclose, it was decided to continue with negotiations within the Annapolis framework without convening yet another international conference."