JERUSALEM – The 22-country Arab League will send envoys on a historic first mission to Israel this week to discuss a sweeping Arab peace initiative and how it might prop up embattled Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, Israeli and Arab diplomats said Sunday.
The announcement came the same day Israel's Cabinet approved the release of 250 Palestinian prisoners, hoping to bolster Abbas in his power struggle with the Islamic terrorist group Hamas.
An official League visit would be a diplomatic coup for Israel. The League historically has been hostile toward the Jewish state, but has grown increasingly conciliatory in response to the expanding influence of Islamic extremists in the region — a concern underscored by Hamas' violent takeover of the Gaza Strip last month.
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Jordan's foreign ministry said the Jordanian and Egyptian foreign ministers would arrive in Jerusalem on Thursday for talks with Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and other Israeli officials.
Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Mark Regev said the foreign ministers would lead an Arab League mission to Israel to discuss the Arab peace plan, which would trade full Arab recognition of Israel for an Israeli withdrawal from all lands captured in the 1967 Mideast war and the creation of a Palestinian state.
"This is the first time the Arab League is coming to Israel," Regev said. "From its inception the Arab League has been hostile to Israel. It will be the first time we'll be flying the Arab League flag."
The two foreign ministers, Abdul-Ilah al-Khatib of Jordan and Ahmed Aboul Gheit of Egypt, whose countries have peace agreements with Israel, have been designated as the League's official point men for the Arab peace initiative.
Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni met them in Cairo in May for the first official, public talks between the two sides, and the Arab peace initiative was the focus.
In another gesture of support for the moderate Palestinian leadership, Livni met late Sunday in Jerusalem with Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, Israeli media reported. Several days ago Fayyad met with Defense Minister Ehud Barak.
Israel rejected the plan outright when Saudi Arabia first proposed it in 2002, at the height of the Palestinian uprising. But it softened its resistance after moderate Arab states endorsed the plan again in March, sharing their concerns about Iran's growing influence.
Israel has welcomed aspects of the plan, while rejecting its call for a return of all of the West Bank and an implied demand to resettle within Israeli borders the Palestinian families who became refugees from the 1948 war that followed Israel's creation.
Moderate Arab countries and the West have been pushing for renewed Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking since Gaza fell to Hamas, a group that refuses to recognize Israel's right to exist and has killed more than 250 Israelis in suicide bombings. Abbas ejected Hamas from government after the Gaza takeover and set up an emergency Cabinet of loyalists that has Western and moderate Arab backing.
Regev said renewed relations with the Palestinian government following the shake-up and the linkage to a broader Middle East settlement would be at the heart of discussions with the Arab League envoys.
"They will be talking about how the Arab peace proposal can help energize the rapprochement between Israel and the Palestinians," he said.
Last month, Egypt hosted a summit of the Israeli, Palestinian and Jordanian leaders to show support for Abbas and to discuss the resumption of peace talks.
At that meeting Olmert pledged to free 250 Palestinian prisoners from Israeli jails in a goodwill gesture meant to bolster Abbas.
On Sunday the Cabinet formally approved the prisoner release. But the timing remained unclear, reflecting a dispute between security officials, who want to free only prisoners whose terms are almost up, and Olmert, who wants a more significant gesture.
"We want to use every means that can strengthen the moderates within the Palestinian Authority, to encourage them to take the path that we believe can create conditions for the start of meaningful discussions," Olmert said in a televised statement at the opening of the Cabinet meeting on Sunday.
Palestinians criticized Israel for not consulting with them on who should be freed, and said the matter should be referred to a joint committee on prisoners the two sides set up two years ago.
"The prisoners issue must be dealt with through this committee and should not happen in unilateral steps," said Saeb Erekat, a top aide to Abbas.
In the West Bank late Sunday, Israeli forces killed a Palestinian gunman in an exchange of fire near the town of Jenin, Palestinian officials and the army said. Islamic Jihad said the militant, Mohammed Nazal, 24, was one its leaders.
Ministers in Abbas' government, meanwhile, visited Palestinians who have been stranded in Egypt's Sinai Peninsula because the Egypt-Gaza border crossing has been closed for nearly month, promising to work to get them home.
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Frustrated Palestinians shouted at the delegation: "We don't want Fatah or Hamas, we just want to get out of here."