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U.S. asks Arabs to help reopen ties to Israel

Obama seeks incentives for Netanyahu to revive the peace process with the Palestinians.

CAIRO, Egypt - Egyptian officials said yesterday that America's Mideast envoy had urged Arab nations to reopen Israeli diplomatic missions and take other steps to normalize relations immediately as incentives for the Jewish state to revive the peace process with Palestinians.

George Mitchell, in Cairo meeting with senior Egyptian officials after two days of talks with Israeli and Palestinian representatives, said Israel and the Arab world had a responsibility to take "meaningful steps" toward peace.

"We all share obligations to help create conditions for the prompt resumption and early conclusion of negotiations to achieve a two-state solution," Mitchell said after meeting with Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit.

The Obama administration has been pushing all sides to increase efforts to achieve "comprehensive peace" among Israel, an independent Palestinian state, and the broader Arab world. But Arab countries, which launched a collective peace initiative in 2002, have been reluctant to take additional steps without first getting concessions from Israel.

Israel's new government has shown little willingness to make concessions. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has refused to concede to U.S. demands that he stop settlement construction in the West Bank and commit to the creation of a Palestinian state - a key demand in the Arab peace initiative, which was relaunched in 2007.

Netanyahu is to deliver a major policy speech Sunday in which aides say he is likely to come out in favor of Palestinian statehood, which could help push the peace process forward. But they say he will also attach conditions to his endorsement, including that Palestinians first recognize Israel as a Jewish homeland and agree not to have an army.

Mitchell has been pushing the peace process from the Arab side as well, urging countries to take "confidence-building measures" to help persuade Netanyahu to resume negotiations, said Egyptian officials, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to the media.

They said Washington's proposals include reopening Israeli diplomatic and trade missions in several Arab capitals that were closed in retaliation for Israel's response to the Palestinian uprising in 2000, known as the second intifada. Morocco, Oman, Qatar, and Tunisia opened the missions after the 1993 Oslo accords between Israel and the Palestinians.

Egypt and Jordan, the only two Arab countries who have made peace with Israel, already have functioning diplomatic and trade missions.

Mitchell also proposed that Arab states allow Israeli commercial planes to fly in their airspace and grant entry to Israeli tourists. Egypt and Jordan are the only Arab states that allow that today.

Aboul Gheit said Arabs might consider little gestures if Israel showed that it was committed to a peace settlement with an "endgame."

"We imagine that the Arab sides could return to the previous situation before 2000, meaning that Arabs respond gradually and on various paces . . . if things move between the Palestinians and the Israelis," he said.

Later yesterday, Mitchell traveled to Jordan, where he met with the country's king.

Carter Makes Visit to Syria

Former President Jimmy Carter said yesterday that there could be no peace between Israel and the Palestinians without involving the extremist group Hamas.

His comments came shortly before he met with the group's Syrian-based leader, Khaled Mashaal,

in Damascus.

Carter stressed that he was visiting as a private citizen and not representing the Obama administration.

President Obama, however, appears to be moving in the direction that Carter has long advocated: engagement with longtime U.S. foes Iran and Syria.

In a speech in Cairo last week, Obama seemed

to suggest some basis

for believing that the Palestinian extremists

who rule Gaza might be drawn into the peace process.

Obama's Mideast envoy, George Mitchell, plans to visit Syrian today.

As president, Carter helped broker an Israeli-Egyptian peace deal in the 1970s and, years later, was awarded the Nobel

Peace Prize.

- Associated Press