Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said Wednesday that Israel is seeing first signs of understanding on behalf of the Arab world, In a veiled reference to a recently relaunched Arab peace initiative.
"Israel is now seeing the first glimmerings of understanding from countries which never had relations with us, which understand that the State of Israel is a power whose existence cannot be ignored and whose future cannot be ignored," said Olmert.
Also Wednesday, Jordan's King Abdullah II urged Olmert during a phone conversation to maintain the peace momentum with the Palestinians and said that a timetable must be set to implement the Arab initiative, the official Petra news agency reported.
Arab foreign ministers on Wednesday asked Egypt and Jordan to contact the Israeli government to try to persuade it to accept the Arab peace initiative, Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal said.
Al-Faisal made the comments during a meeting of a working group established by the Arab League in order to advance the initiative, after it was affirmed last month at the league's Riyadh summit.
The two would try to "initiate direct talks with Israel, call on the Israeli government and all Israelis to accept the Arab peace initiative and to take this chance to resume the direct and serious talks on all levels," Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal said at a press conference.
It was not clear when the new contacts with Israel would be launched, but al-Faisal said, "soon, it could be tomorrow or in a week, it is up to Egypt and Jordan to take the step."
Israeli government spokeswoman Miri Eisin said in response that Israel would be happy to hear the ideas of the Arab initiative from their representatives.
"Our position has remained unchanged, we will not dictate to them what to tell us and we will express our position in response," Eisin said.
He named only Egypt and Jordan as the members of one of the working groups set up to promote the peace plan, which offers Israel normal relations with all Arab states in return for an Israeli withdrawal from land captured in the 1967 Six Day War and a just solution for the Palestinian refugee issue.
But the U.S. reacted coolly to the fact that other Arab states are not going to be involved in the working group. "It's a start," State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said Wednesday, but in truth more Arab countries should be talking with Israel than just Egypt and Jordan."
"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," McCormack said.
"You want to get the point where you start expanding out that group of countries that can have some form of diplomatic interaction with Israel.So we would view this as a first step in that regard," he said.
Asked whether the Saudis should be involved, McCormack said that was up to the Saudis to decide. He said that the 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.
The Arab League intends to approach the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council as well as the Quartet of Middle East negotiators - the United States, UN, European Union and Russia - in an attempt to further the initiative and restart the peace process with Israel.
Earlier on Wednesday, Olmert told lawmakers that the United States is considering organizing a regional summit, which could include delegates from Saudi Arabia.
"There is American consideration on a meeting of the 'ten'," Olmert told the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee. He was referring to a group comprising the Quartet of Middle East peace brokers - the U.S., United Nations, Russia and the European Union - as well as Israel, the Palestinian Authority, Egypt, Jordan, Morocco and Saudi Arabia.
Olmert told MKs that in the wake of a meeting of Arab League foreign ministers Wednesday in Cairo, a delegation from the organization may visit Israel.
The Arab League has decided in the past that countries that do not have relations with Israel would not participate in contacts with Jerusalem. This includes Saudi Arabia, which is behind the peace initiative.
Olmert also touched on negotiations on the release of captured Israel Defense Forces soldier Gilad Shalit. He warned that "Israel cannot pay any price asked by Gilad Shalit's captors."
"It is unacceptable to decide that everything is allowed and everything is possible," he said.
The prime minister described the list of prisoners presented by the Palestinians for a potential prisoner exchange as "a disappointing list, which creates expectations which we have no option of meeting."
Olmert also sought to calm Syrian fears of an Israeli assault, saying Israeli intelligence officials believe Syria's recent troop redeployment was because Damascus thinks Israel will attack Syria, and not because Syria is preparing to attack Israel.
"We have no intention of attacking Syria," the prime minister told the panel.
"All of Israel's bodies estimate that Syria is preparing for a strike against it, and we are also preparing for a situation in which we will be surprised," he added.
Olmert said that Israel should not enter blindly into negotiations with Syria.
"I am against those who considered striking Syria during the [Second Lebanon War], and against those who believe, in a Pavlovian manner, that we must enter negotiations."
"Conditions need to ripen, so that should negotiations fail, they will not do more harm than good," he said.
The prime minister also addressed the possibility of slipping into war because of mistaken assumptions on both sides about the intentions of the other. For this reason, he said, he has sent a message to Syrian President Bashar Assad that Israel has no intention of carrying out a military strike.
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