Official: Israel 'Not Far' From Meeting With Saudis

Israel is "not far from a photo op with the Saudis," a senior government source said yesterday following a historic visit to Jerusalem on behalf of the Arab League by the foreign ministers of Egypt and Jordan.

The source added that talks with the Saudis have been taking place via a third party for some time.

Egypt's Ahmed Aboul Gheit and Jordan's Abdelelah Al-Khatib came to promote the Arab peace initiative, which the Arab League summit in Riyadh reaffirmed earlier this year. The two met with Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and also visited the Knesset.

During the meeting, Olmert stressed the importance of other Arab countries joining the peace process, referring mainly to Saudi Arabia.

"We hope Israel and the Palestinian Authority will make sufficient progress in their meetings to create the necessary atmosphere for normalizing relations between Israel and the rest of the Arab world," Aboul Gheit told Olmert.

In response, Olmert said that Israel and the PA "have begun a process of dialogue that will naturally also lead to negotiations with the PA on the main issues that will enable the establishment of a Palestinian state."

"I am determined to create a track that will enable serious talks with Abu Mazen [PA Chairman Mahmoud Abbas]," Olmert continued. "I want it to be clear: Abu Mazen is fully responsible and he is willing to take a chance. There are also risks for Israel, I am not saying that terrorism has ended, but we are sufficiently strong to take such risks."

The prime minister also confirmed that he intends to negotiate with Abbas on a "declaration of principles" for the establishment of a Palestinian state and noted that in addition to the gestures that Israel has already offered Abbas and his prime minister, Salam Fayyad, "there are other quiet understandings" in place with the PA.

Al-Khatib told Olmert that the Arab peace initiative is a "historic development" and said that he hoped Israel would begin negotiations with the Arab world on the basis of this initiative.

"Most of the international community and the Muslim countries support the initiative, and we hope that everyone will benefit from it," the Jordanian foreign minister said.

Olmert replied that "Israel is interested in discussing the peace initiative with the Arab states with an open heart and an open mind." He also expressed the hope that on the Arab foreign ministers' next visit, representatives from other Arab states would join them for talks on the peace initiative.

Both foreign ministers stressed that their mission is not meant to serve as an alternative to direct exchanges between Israel and the Palestinians, but only to bolster this process.

At a press conference with Livni, Aboul Gheit said that negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians do not need to start from the beginning; instead, the parties should build on what they had already agreed to in previous meetings.

His Jordanian colleague added that later, Israel must sign agreements with Syria and Lebanon as well.

The two visiting dignitaries also met with the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee.

Aboul Gheit told the committee that the Arab League's peace initiative is an opportunity for Israel to improve its ties with 56 Muslim countries, adding that the initiative is not an "all or nothing" deal, but a basis for negotiations.

Likud chairman and leader of the opposition MK Benjamin Netanyahu responded that he opposes the principles of the Arab League's initiative. "The unilateral withdrawal from the Gaza Strip failed," he said, suggesting that other Israeli pullouts would also fail.

"Everywhere that Israel has given up territory has immediately become a terrorist base for extremist Islamic terrorism," he added, referring to Hezbollah in southern Lebanon and Hamas in the Gaza Strip.