For the first time in its history, the 22-state Arab League will send a delegation to Israel this week, with the mission of discussing a sweeping peace initiative as well as the threat posed by Hamas and other Islamic groups.
The announcement from Israeli and Arab diplomats came on Sunday, just as Israel's Cabinet approved the release of 250 Palestinian prisoners in a bid to bolster Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in his power struggle with Hamas.
The Arab League historically has been hostile toward Israel, but has grown increasingly conciliatory given the expanding influence of Islamic extremists in the region -- a concern underscored by Hamas' violent takeover of the Gaza Strip last month.
The Jordanian foreign ministry said Jordanian Foreign Minister Abdul-Ilah al-Khatib and Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit would arrive in Jerusalem on Thursday for talks with Israeli officials -- Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and Defense Minister Ehud Barak.
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 Middle East 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."
Arab League Secretary Amr Moussa said on Sunday: "The upcoming visit of Egypt's and Jordan's foreign ministers to Israel upon the request of the Arab committee of a peace initiative is to conduct necessary contacts with Israel."
The two foreign ministers, whose countries have peace agreements with Israel, have been designated as the League's official point men for the Arab peace initiative.
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.
Israel rejected the Arab plan outright when Saudi Arabia first proposed it in 2002, at the height of the Palestinian uprising. But it softened its resistance after some Arab states endorsed the plan again in March, sharing their concerns about Iran's growing influence.
Israeli officials have said they welcomed aspects of the plan, while rejecting its call for a return of all of the West Bank and an implied demand to take in Palestinian refugees from the 1948 war that followed Israel's creation.
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