Israel is interested in better relations with Arab states

After its withdrawal from the Gaza Strip, Israel is pushing Arab states to take the next step and work toward normalizing relations, but so far has faced an uncertain response.

Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom, in New York for a U.N. summit and ministerial meetings, said Monday that with the end of Israel's presence in Gaza, it was the Arabs' turn to make the next move. He went so far as to say his nation was willing to negotiate with archenemy Syria if it stops supporting militants.

Shalom has held several meetings with Arab leaders over the last week, boosting hopes of a new era of cooperation in the Middle East. Shalom has also been telling Arab and Islamic countries that opening ties with Israel would be the best way to help the Palestinians.

Tunisia's Foreign Minister Abdelwahab Abdallah left the 40-minute meeting after shaking hands with Shalom and made no comments to reporters.

In a speech later to the U.N. General Assembly, Abdallah called on all parties to take advantage of the "positive developments" in the region to resume negotiations on creating a Palestinian state and bringing about peace.

Later Tuesday, ministers from the so-called Quartet - the U.N., the U.S., the European Union and Russia - were to meet at the United Nations to assess Israel's historic withdrawal from Gaza. They were expected to focus on the difficulties in reviving the Palestinian economy and getting Israelis and Palestinians to return to the "road map" peace plan.

They were also likely to touch on continued signs of division among Arab leaders over whether and how far to go beyond symbolic gestures to reward Israel for its Gaza withdrawal. The Arab League still hasn't set a date for a summit to discuss the Gaza withdrawal or Iraq, apparently due to lack of consensus on the issues.

Saudi Crown Prince Sultan said in New York last week that Israel should withdraw from more Arab land after Gaza, sticking to the pan-Arab position that full recognition and peace will come when Israel fulfills Arab conditions.

The Arab peace plan calls on Israel to withdraw from all territory captured in the 1967 Middle East war, the establishment of a Palestinian state and a solution for Palestinian refugees. Palestinians want Gaza, the West Bank and traditionally Arab east Jerusalem for their future state, while Syria wants the return of the Golan Heights.

Shalom said he was optimistic about the possibility of closer ties with the Arab world that could eventually lead to full diplomatic relations. Shalom also announced he will visit Tunisia in November.

Last week, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon shook hands and exchanged pleasantries with Pakistani leader Pervez Musharraf, whose country has long taken an especially hard-line stand against the Jewish state.

Shalom said Arab officials he met with had a "positive attitude" about the future prospects for relations, though he indicated breakthroughs may not be achieved immediately.

Asked whether his talks with Arab officials could lead to diplomatic relations, Shalom replied: "Of course, they're considering it. They believe, too, this is the appropriate time. We're making some progress."

Yet Shalom made comments Monday night that were likely to stir tensions again. He repeated Sharon's claim that Israel will try to impede Palestinian elections set for January if the militant group Hamas takes part, the AP reports.

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