CAIRO: Arab foreign ministers asked Egypt and Jordan on Wednesday to contact Israelis to try to persuade them to accept an Arab peace plan, Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud Al-Faisal said.
Egypt and Jordan already have relations with Israel and the Israeli government had hoped that the Arabs would include other Arab governments in the Arab League working group set up to promote the plan with the Jewish state.
But Prince Saud named only Egypt and Jordan as the members of the group which will contact the Israelis. Another working group of eight Arab foreign ministers and the Arab League secretary general will make broader contacts elsewhere.
There is no free normalization [of relations], Arab League Secretary-General Amr Moussa told a joint news conference with the Saudi minister after a special ministerial meeting.
Israeli officials said they would need time to review the decision before issuing a formal response.
It is significant because the Arab League is sending two Arab countries to negotiate with Israel, one government source said. But this is a very long road and they made a very small step at the beginning of it.
The Arab peace plan, relaunched at an Arab summit in the Saudi capital Riyadh last month, offers Israel normal relations with all Arab states in return for land captured in the Middle East war of 1967 and a settlement for Palestinian refugees.
Prince Saud said the mandate for Egypt and Jordan would be to start efforts to put the Arab peace initiative into effect and facilitate a start to direct negotiations.
The Arab ministers had acted on the basis of an Arab League resolution which calls on the Israeli government and Israelis in general to accept the Arab peace plan and seize the opportunity to resume the process of direct and serious negotiations on all tracks , the prince added.
Moussa said the Arab working group could be expanded at a later stage if the Israeli government met a list of Arab demands, including lifting sanctions against the Palestinian government and an end to work on Jewish settlements and on the barrier it is building through the West Bank.
Prince Saud, asked if Saudi Arabia might join when the working group is expanded, said: No.
Egypt and the Arab League have dismissed speculation that the working group will negotiate details of the peace plan with Israel, saying that is up to Arab governments which have territorial claims – Syria, Lebanon and the Palestinians.
The Arab peace initiative dates back to an Arab summit in Beirut in 2002 but Israel had rejected the terms as too demanding and the United States showed little interest in it.
The attitude of Israel and the United States has changed in public but analysts say it is not yet clear whether Israel is prepared to be more flexible on final status issues such as the borders of a Palestinian state and Palestinian refugees.
Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said on Monday Israel was ready for talks on the land-for-peace initiative, but Israel made clear it wanted Saudi Arabia and other Arab League members with no formal ties to the Jewish state to take part.
I m ready to sit with them on the basis of the [Saudi-Arab] plan, and I m ready to listen very carefully to their proposal on the basis of this plan and to see how we can work together to ultimately find common ground, Olmert told the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation in an interview.
The countries in the other working group are Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Morocco, Palestine, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Syria.
It will contact the United Nations Security Council, the United States, the European Union, Russia and a wide range of international organizations, Prince Saud said.