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Arab peace plan reinvigorated

Israel's premier and foreign chief head to Jordan and Egypt. Olmert will meet "very soon" with Abbas.

JERUSALEM - Efforts to revive Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking shift into higher gear in the coming week, with Prime Minister Ehud Olmert traveling to Jordan and his foreign minister heading to Egypt to discuss a sweeping Arab peace proposal, an Israeli official said yesterday.

Olmert's spokeswoman said he also would meet "very soon" with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.

The meetings offer some counterbalance to a setback to recently invigorated U.S. involvement in the conflict. On Monday, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice canceled a follow-up visit to the region because of the political turmoil triggered by an Israeli commission's findings that Olmert and his government badly mismanaged last year's war in Lebanon.

Olmert and his government have been substantially weakened - something that could hobble any bold moves to restart long-stalled peace efforts.

His visit to Jordan on Tuesday will be his first trip abroad since the report's release last week. He is scheduled to meet with King Abdullah II in the ancient city of Petra on the sidelines of an annual Jordanian conference for Nobel laureates.

Chief Jordanian government spokesman Nasser Judeh said Abdullah would "spare no effort to revive the peace process, and we believe that the upcoming visit will provide an opportunity to do so."

The plan - introduced by Saudi Arabia in 2002 and revived at a recent Arab summit in Riyadh - calls for full Arab recognition of Israel in return for an Israeli withdrawal from territories captured in a 1967 war. It also calls for Palestinian statehood.

Israel has praised the broad land-for-peace concept but rejected the premise of a full withdrawal from captured lands. It also rejected Arab demands to repatriate Palestinian refugees and millions of their descendants, on the grounds that it would destroy Israel's character as a Jewish state.

Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni travels to Cairo tomorrow to meet with her Egyptian and Jordanian counterparts to discuss the plan.

"She wants to see if it is possible to turn this into a tangible vehicle to promote the Middle East peace process," ministry spokesman Mark Regev said.

If the Arabs are willing to modify the plan, Regev said, it could become "a turning point" in Middle Eastern history.

Rice has visited the region frequently in recent months, urging the sides to restart peace efforts. Olmert and Abbas have held several meetings recently, and the Israeli daily Haaretz said they had opened a secret negotiation channel.

The chief Palestinian negotiator, Saeb Erekat, called the report "baseless." Olmert's spokeswoman, Miri Eisin, also said no secret talks had been held. She said that Olmert and Abbas would meet "very soon" but that the time and date had not been set.

The moves to spur peace efforts come as military officials reported a plan to create a 300-mile-wide "buffer zone" inside the edge of the Gaza Strip to halt the latest wave of Palestinian rocket attacks.

If Israel carried out the plan, it would spell the end of a six-month truce that stopped Israeli military operations, but not the attacks. Gaza extremists launched three rockets at Israel yesterday, the military said. No one was hurt.