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Israel’s Chief Diplomat Meets Arab Counterparts In Backroom Talks

Washington – While the Iranian president was busy stealing the limelight at this year’s United Nations General Assembly, Israel’s foreign minister was quietly carrying out a new strategy of normalizing relations with Muslim countries in a series of backroom meetings.

During her weeklong stay in the United States, Tzipi Livni made her case at the U.N. as well as in a series of meetings with representatives from a host of Middle Eastern and North African countries that currently do not maintain formal ties with Israel.

“As the parties take the risks for peace, we look to the international community and to the Arab and Muslim world to offer support, not to stipulate conditions,” Livni said Monday in her speech at the General Assembly.

For Livni, a rising star on the Israeli political scene, the week of intense diplomacy around the General Assembly was a chance to position herself as a leading voice on Israel’s foreign affairs. This role has traditionally been a matter for a tug-of-war between the prime minister’s office and the Foreign Ministry, with the prime minister usually sidelining the foreign minister on issues relating to the peace process and to Israeli-American relations.

Livni is considered to have relatively dovish views regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and she speaks openly about the need to create a Palestinian state on most of the West Bank. Within the Olmert Cabinet, she is still struggling with the much more hawkish views presented by other ministers.

“Livni maybe doesn’t speak for her party [Kadima], but she definitely represents the views of the party’s voters on these issues,” said Akiva Eldar, senior political analyst of Israel’s Ha’aretz daily. Eldar is now on a book tour in the United States.

According to Eldar, Livni has come a long way from her political origins: She grew up in a house of right-wing supporters of “greater Israel” and is now the leading advocate of a two-state solution.

In closed-door meetings with Arab officials, Livni set out specific measures to support the process, including the public backing of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and the beginning of a normalization process with Israel.

During the week, she shuttled between meetings with the Amir of Qatar, Sheikh Hamed bin Khalifa al-Thani, and with ministers from Oman, Tunisia, Morocco, Jordan, Egypt and Mauritania. She also participated in a meeting attended by the secretary general of Oman’s foreign ministry hosted by the American Jewish Committee. The event celebrated 10 years of a joint desalination project in Oman, the only remaining active cooperation program out of the many joint groups that were established after the Oslo Accords.

The flurry of activity comes in advance of an American-sponsored peace conference set for next month. American officials announced this week that the conference would take place in Annapolis, Md.

Livni’s tactics seemed designed as a response to what Israelis perceive as one of the major failures of the 2000 Camp David summit: Lacking the support of Saudi Arabia and other moderate Arab countries, the Palestinian leadership under Yasser Arafat would not go ahead with compromises on issues relating to refugees and Jerusalem, ultimately resulting in the process’s failure.

Israel has struggled to achieve normal relations with Arab states, but Gulf countries have long made resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian dispute — or at least achieving significant progress toward a resolution — a precondition of normal relations. As a result of this policy, Israel has only a handful of low-level interest offices in Arab countries and has no diplomatic or commercial ties with the most important player in the region, Saudi Arabia.

According to Israeli diplomatic sources, the foreign minister called last week for gradual or phased normalization between Arab countries and Israel, but she stressed Israel’s expectation to see the Arab world show its gratitude for Israel’s willingness to show both on final-status issues and on measures designed to improve the situation on the ground .

“Even though Israel has taken significant steps in support of Abu Mazen [Mahmoud Abbas], we have seen nothing in return on the Arab side,” the source said, adding that as Israel steps closer to discussing final-status issues with the Palestinians — and continues to release prisoners and to transfer funds to the Palestinian Authority — it will look to the region’s Arab countries to respond with reciprocal steps.

“It can be even something small, like an open meeting with an Israeli official,” the source said.

Other normalization steps that could satisfy Israel include support for Israel in international forums, increasing trade and economic ties, and offering cooperation on regional issues.

“There are many steps that can be taken even before we establish full diplomatic ties,” the source said. “The more progress we see, the easier it will be for Israel to move forward with the Palestinians.”

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