Egyptian FM Ahmed Aboul Gheit and Jordanian FM Abdelelah al-Khatib came to Israel as representatives of  the Arab League for meetings with Israeli leaders.

 Joint press conference with Israeli FM Livni, Egyptian FM Gheit and Jordanian FM al-Khatib


FM Livni greets Egyptian FM Gheit and Jordanian FM Al-Khatib in Jerusalem (Photo: Reuters)

FM Livni: Thank you. I was asked to wait for a few moments for you to receive the translations, so I would like to use this opportunity to say a few words in English.

I believe that this is an historic visit to Israel. It is a formal visit, following my formal visit to Cairo and our previous meeting. This is the first joint visit to Israel of members of the Arab Working Group established by the Arab League and I believe that this point in time is a crucial point in time, and there is an opportunity here.

I believe that the Arab peace initiative and the dialogue with the Arab Working Group is an historic opportunity for Israeli-Arab relations and, more important, the Israeli-Palestinian process. I believe that there is a need to promote the process between Israel and the Palestinians. I believe in the importance of the role of the Arab league in helping to support the Palestinians and the Israelis, in taking the right steps in creating or making the vision of the two-state solution more concrete.

Now, I would like to say a few words in Hebrew.

Good afternoon. I wish to welcome my colleagues, the foreign ministers of Egypt and Jordan, who have come here for a historic visit as representatives of the Working Group that was established by the Arab League. This meeting is a follow-up to the one we conducted in Cairo. Actually, a discussion got underway there as well between Israel and representatives of the Arab League Working Group.

It is important to make clear that we have perhaps not seen this kind of opportunity for many years. We can see a government in the Palestinian Authority, one with which Israel has begun to conduct a dialogue, a government that wants to advance the two-state vision, just as Israel does. We can see a willingness and a will on the part of the Arab world to support the bilateral process between Israel and the Palestinians, and so we should not miss the historical opportunity that has befallen us, and we should try to harness all the players who, together, can contribute to this process.

The significance, of course, is to advance the bilateral process between Israel and the Palestinians, to see how the Arab world can support the Palestinians and the process so that the two-state vision does not remain remote but becomes something much more practical. Israel is, of course, also taking steps that are more on the immediate level, so I believe that when Israel promotes and makes progress in the peace process with the Palestinians, the more steps it takes toward them in this context, the more support we’ll be able to see from the Arab world as well in its relationship with Israel. And I think that perhaps this is also the essence of the Arab initiative. Welcome.

Egyptian FM Gheit: Many thanks. I am very happy to be here as the foreign minister of Egypt on assignment by the Working Group of the Arab Summit to discuss and present the Arab peace initiative, as approved by the Arab Summit of 2002 and reaffirmed in 2007, aimed at establishing a comprehensive peace and normal relations between the Arab world, the Arab states, and Israel. This naturally means, according to the concept of this initiative, the establishment of a viable Palestinian state with territorial contiguity; this is the logic.

We have presented this matter to Mrs. Livni and have heard many positive responses, which lead us to believe that Israel intends to work seriously towards providing an opportunity to the Palestinians to obtain that state. That was a main aim of this visit. We hope to present a report to the Arab Ministerial Council next Monday, relate to them what we have heard and convey the proposals we have listened to, and then we shall probably suggest some ideas to strengthen and ensure the continuation of this process.

This process is not for the good of the Palestinians alone, but rather it is designed to assist both the Palestinians and Israel to establish that desired peace.

Thank you.

Jordanian FM al-Khatib: I want first to thank Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and the Israeli government for the warm reception. This is a visit that comes, as the Foreign Minister of Egypt has said, in accordance with the mandate given to us by the Arab committee, assigned by the Arab summit, to follow up on the Arab peace initiative.

We are here today to present to the Israeli government, to the Israeli people and to the Israeli Parliament this collective Arab peace offer, in order to reach a permanent and comprehensive settlement of the Arab-Israeli conflict, based on a two-state solution and on the establishment of an independent, viable and a contiguous Palestinian state, in the areas which have been occupied since 1967, including East Jerusalem, and [including] reaching an agreement between Israel and Syria and Lebanon, based on the … Arab territories occupied since 1967.

This serious offer constitutes an opportunity of historic magnitude – it will provide Israel with the security and recognition and acceptance in this region to which Israel has long aspired. The Arab peace initiative has been endorsed by the vast majority of the members of the international community, including, and especially, the vast majority of the Moslem countries, members of the O.I.C. This means that more than fifty Moslem countries, including twenty-two Arab countries, stand behind this collective offer.

We are extending our hands in peace and in coexistence, [in a move] that will make Israel a part of this region and will enable our people and the entire region to look forward with hope and to devote their energy and efforts to achieve growth and prosperity and to advance the development and the improvement of life in all of the region.

Military means have not brought an end to the despair and hopelessness and injustice among people of this region that has resulted from the absence of peace; nor has it eliminated extremism. The time has come for genuine peace; peace that resonates with Palestinians and with Israelis and with all the people of the region. Now, more than ever before, people need to see results. And these results mean independence for the Palestinian people, security for Israel, and a future of hope for all of us.

I will say a few words in Arabic.

We are here today in Israel, my Egyptian colleague and I, on behalf of the committee established by the Arab Summit to follow the implementation of the Arab peace initiative. We are  here to present a collective, serious Arab proposal for a comprehensive peace  based on international legitimacy leading to the establishment of a viable and contiguous Palestinian state, as well as agreements between Israel, Lebanon and Syria, respectively, leading to withdrawal from Syrian and Arab  territories occupied in 1967, all culminating in a comprehensive peace for the region.

This proposal is an historic opportunity. We hope this visit will provide the impetus for Palestinian-Israeli talks. There must be fruitful talks that can lead to peace and the establishment of an independent Palestinian state in a given time-frame and, for these talks to succeed, the right atmosphere must be created. Israel must facilitate matters by making changes on the ground in the occupied Palestinian territories by means of lifting barriers and roadblocks, improving economic conditions, returning to the status quo that existed before 28 September 2000 – withdrawing from Palestinian towns occupied in 2000 – and doing all that is possible for the success of the talks.

Once again, we hope our visit will help launch these talks, because the Palestinian problem is the key issue in the region and, without solving it, as well as the Lebanese and Syrian problems, there will be no peace in the area. Thank you.

Q: Minister Tzipi Livni, Israel opposes the right of return of the refugees in the Arab initiative, and a few other clauses. Can accepting the Arab initiative lead to dramatic changes in the region, as you envision it? And what about progress on the Syrian track – is it being discussed between you?
Q: Your Excellencies, Ministers Aboul Gheit and Abdelelah al-Khatib, do you think that the Arab initiative will succeed in setting up diplomatic ties between Israel and the other Arab states, as the  Egyptian Foreign Minister said the other day; and what about the possibility of progress on the Israeli-Syrian track? There have been reports about such contacts via Turkey – are you involved in this in any way?

FM Livni: You have to understand the Arab initiative. It has a number of elements. Some of it relates to the need to achieve peace in the region, and we are certainly partners in that. It naturally represents the Arab narrative, just as Israel has its own principles. In our eyes, as I’ve stated in the past as well, the principle of the two-state vision relates to two national states living in peace side by side, but I think that it would be a mistake today, at this juncture, for us to start waging some kind of debate about each clause.

We have here a situation, also from the Arab League’s point of view, in which the discussion about the terms of the settlement between Israel and the Palestinians is a bilateral negotiation between the two parties. My colleagues have also said this. The Arab League has agreed and made it clear that it has no intention of standing in for the Palestinians in the negotiations. Quite the contrary, it wants to support the negotiations, it wants results to be achieved, and it wants to reach the situation of two states living side by side in peace. So each side is going to have to lay the subjects bothering it on the table and reach a settlement; and we very much want to achieve a settlement.

Therefore, the opportunity lies both in the chance to advance the bilateral process and in the Arab world’s support of it, in a number of ways – by supporting the Palestinian side, by setting proper procedures, and, also, the more Israel takes steps that the Arab League considers proper, with regard to advancing the process, the more support we can expect to receive from the Arab world.

This is the framework we are working in, so if there’s one thing it would be wrong to do today, it would be to emphasize the differences between each of the sides.

FM Gheit: May I add to the comments of Mme Foreign Minister who said that you and the Palestinians are not starting from zero; you have been talking to them for 14 years and have reached many points of agreement, so all you have to do is to resume those talks and move on to help establish a Palestinian state next to Israel. I have learned from my talks with Mme Foreign Minister and President Peres that there is broad agreement in Israeli society supporting such a state, which we hope will be achieved soon, because the time frame available is limited. This is an historic opportunity that must be taken.

(inaudible question)

Yes, I said that the Israeli and the Palestinians should not be starting at point zero. I said that over the last 14 years there have been lots and lots of discussions and agreements of the parameters for a settlement between both. So what is needed today is to re-launch negotiations between both of them with our help, hopefully soon, because we do not have much [time] and time is of the essence, and it is of a limited span and the opportunity is available. An historical opportunity is available.

I also said that the heads of the state, the president, Shimon Peres, as well as the minister of Israel, confirmed that there is a very wide consensus in this society accepting … the establishment of a Palestinian state.

FM al-Khatib: The Arab peace initiative [is] the consensus of all the Arab member states of the Arab League, including the Palestinian Authority, and this is why we need to express our full support to the Palestinian Authority and to express our full support  to Mahmoud Abbas and his government as a qualified and willing partner, to engage in serious negotiations with Israel, in order to achieve a final such settlement between the Israelis and the  Palestinians in establishing an independent Palestinian state and offering Israel the security that it needs. The initiative also means that we need to achieve comprehensive peace – that means peace on all tracks, on the Syrian-Israeli track, on the Lebanese-Israel track, to reach a comprehensive peace.

Q: We all know that His Majesty King Abdullah and his brother the President of Egypt are leading Arab diplomatic moves on the Palestinian question. There is also the call by President Bush for a peace conference in the spring. There is this visit on behalf of the Arab League. His Majesty has been discussing the matter in Washington. My question is: does the Arab side see a serious Israeli response to this initiative? Do you think talks on final status are possible before Mr. Bush concludes his presidency?

FM al-Khatib: As stated by HE the Egyptian Minister, we have noted an appreciation of the historical importance of the Arab peace initiative and there is a detailed study of the various aspects of this initiative. We hope to continue this dialogue. As mentioned, there is to be an Arab meeting next week to evaluate these contacts, as well as the contacts between His Majesty and his fellow Arab leaders, President Mubarak and King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz (of Saudi Arabia). [These are] all part of the movement towards a true and fruitful Israeli-Palestinian peace process in a predetermined time-frame leading to a comprehensive peace between the Arab states and Israel.

Q: As a follow-up, does this mean you insist on a strict timetable for these talks?

FM al-Khatib:  Naturally, talks are a means of reaching agreement; talks in themselves are not the aim. There is a need for a precise, quick time-frame because we have an historic opportunity we must not lose and we urge Israel not to lose it, as it represents a collective Arab position supported by the Islamic world and the comity of nations, and it should be seized, because time is not on the side of those who seek peace. We must act soon to reach a Palestinian-Israeli agreement and comprehensive peace.

FM Gheit: Let me say that talking about “political horizons” is insufficient because the horizon is usually unattainable; we must move along agreed paths. I do not think we shall see a Palestinian state tomorrow, but I think steps must be taken to allow the Palestinians. The other point is that we must start the peace talks in an agreed time-frame to reach our target. When? I do not know, but we must get started.

Q: Your Excellencies, you spoke of a positive atmosphere, but there   have been many Israeli reservations concerning the initiative. Could we have some details, especially about withdrawals, one of the key points being withdrawal to the pre-1967 lines, and it has been said that Israel plans to withdraw from some West Bank towns.

Q: To HE the FM of Egypt: What has happened concerning the Rafah crossing and those waiting to cross?

FM Gheit: The Rafah crossing is closed because the European observers left it. One should know that the crossing operated under an agreement between the PA, the EU and Israel. If one party is absent… and agreements must be respected. Egypt is trying to help those who wish to cross. Some options are available; perhaps a solution will be found in the next few days.

I can’t speak for the foreign minister of Israel, and I cannot tell you what she told us, but we did not get into details; that is for the PA and Israel to negotiate.

FM Livni: Excuse me, I would like to answer the question directly, and maybe to take advantage of there being present many from the Arab world press, because, both from the questions and in meetings with my partners in dialogue from the Arab world, sometimes I think that Israel is perceived as having no interest in advancing the process. This is a misconception about the Government of Israel. A standstill is not the policy we want. For the people of Israel, advancing a process that will eventually lead to two national states, with each providing the solution for its people, two states living in peace, is the aspiration of the majority of the Israeli public, not just a particular party and not just this government.

And if we could – since the timetable was also asked about – if tomorrow we could reach the end of this conflict, I wish it were so, and we would be happy to do so. Each side has its own concerns and its own narrative. The Arab initiative, as was stated earlier, clearly is not intended to replace the Palestinians in the negotiations that will determine what the Palestinians’ lives will look like. It obviously wants to help reach the goal and support them. I am sure that it also wants to support Israel, when Israel takes steps that the Arab League considers supportive of the process. But the thing is for each side really to lay on the table not only its aspirations but also its concerns, out of understanding the common vision that we wish to fulfill. And in the natural course of things, Israel has had less than successful experiences; and what we see happening today in Gaza is certainly not encouraging.

But we are determined, not only in the government but as a nation, to advance these processes that will make it possible for the Palestinians to have their own state, just as they have to let us live in the State of Israel, with Israel representing its own values as a Jewish democratic state, one that wants to live in peace and one that deserves to live in peace with its neighbors, the same as the Palestinians deserve.

This is the idea with which we have to work with the Palestinians. That’s why I said that if there were a mistake that could be made today, it would be to start looking for the differences regarding each clause in the initiative. The smart thing is to see the opportunity here and try to seize it, with each party playing its role. The first tier is of Israel and the Palestinians. There is the support tier of the Arab League. There is the tier of the international community. Only yesterday we had a visit from the Quartet’s envoy, who is meant to help, among other things, in building the institutions and processes for establishing a Palestinian state.

The smart thing is to not only look at the clock and say, “What’s happening?” The smart thing is to take the right steps in a way that reflects the common denominator here today, in my opinion, between Israel, Abu Mazen and the Palestinian government; and that is, I believe, not only what we can do but is the duty of all of us – Israel, the Palestinians, and the Arab world.

FM Gheit: I want to say, when she refers to the bilateral region and international, that a lot of the responses of the region, that is the crux of the Arab position and I think that they understand today in Israel, that we are coming forward, we are offering, but do what is necessary and what is needed with the Palestinians. This is the message.

FM Livni: I would like to say just a few words in English, on the last comment, which I believe represents, not only the Israeli belief, but on a common understanding here. And basically, on the behalf of the State of Israel, on behalf of the Israeli government and on behalf of the people of Israel, I want to make it clear that we are not looking for stagnation – the policy of the Israeli government is that stagnation is not an option.

We are looking to promote the process on the bilateral track between Israel and the Palestinians. The idea of the two state solution is not just a vague idea and it is not just a vision, but this is something that we need to make more concrete; for the sake of the Israelis and for the Palestinians as well. And we are wiling to go with the Palestinians in order to make this vision more concrete.

But there are certain things that we need to address. And, of course, a part of the Arab League initiative is the Arab narrative, and we have our own narrative and an understanding and an interest, and we need to put everything on the table, and we need to discuss it on the bilateral track between Israel and the Palestinians. The Arab world can support the Palestinians in making and in taking the right steps, and doing the right things, and getting to the right decisions, in order to make this a feasible vision.

Shen it comes to Israel, I think that it is important to work with the Palestinians on things which are important for them on a daily level, in the short term, and also on things which are of interest to them in the long term. And we should do it simultaneously. Basically, it is more important to promote this process in the right way, according to the interest of all of the players. And I believe that we share the same interest. I believe that it is not a zero sum game.

I believe that not any Israeli interest is against the Palestinian interest. I believe that right now, we can find a common denominator between Israel,  the Palestinians, the Arab world and the international community and put it all together, and find out what is the best process that we can promote and support.

Thank you.