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Arabs loosen stance on Israel's 1967 border

WASHINGTON Arab countries endorsed a Mideast peace plan Monday that would allow for small shifts in Israel's 1967 border, moving them closer to President Barack Obama's two-state vision.

Speaking on behalf of an Arab League delegation to Washington, Qatari Prime Minister Sheik Hamad Bin Jassem Al Thani called for an agreement between Israel and a future Palestine based on the Jewish state's border before the 1967 Mideast War. But, unlike in previous such offers, he cited the possibility of "comparable," mutually agreed and "minor" land swaps between the Israelis and the Palestinians.

Al Thani spoke after his delegation met across the street from the White House with Vice President Joe Biden and Secretary of State John Kerry, who has been pushing Arab leaders to embrace a modified version of their decade-old "Arab Peace Initiative" as part of a new U.S.-led effort to corral Israel and the Palestinians back into direct peace talks.

Those negotiations have hardly occurred at all over the past 4 1/2 years amid deep disagreement over Israeli settlement construction in lands the Palestinians hope to include in their country.

"We've had a very positive, very constructive discussion over the course of the afternoon, with positive results," Kerry said at Blair House, speaking with Al Thani at a podium beside him and senior officials from five other Arab governments behind them. He praised the Arab League for the "important role it is playing, and is determined to play, in bringing about a peace in the Middle East — and specifically by reaffirming the Arab Peace Initiative here this afternoon, with a view to ending the conflict."

Kerry said that he and Biden stressed the vision that Obama outlined in 2011, when he became the first American leader to publicly declare Israel's pre-1967 lines as the basis for an Israeli-Palestinian settlement.

The declaration, while including the caveat of mutually agreed territorial trades between the two parties, raised a furor in Israel and led to public sparring only days later between Obama and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu when the Israeli leader visited the White House.

While little has changed in Israel's public posture, the remarks by Al Thani suggest that Kerry has had some success, at least, in coordinating a more unified regional strategy between the U.S. and its Arab partners. Top officials from the Arab League, Bahrain, Egypt, Lebanon, the Palestinian territories and Saudi Arabia attended the meeting.

Although revolutionary when it was introduced by Saudi Arabia and endorsed by the 22-member Arab League, the initiative has never been embraced by Israel. And Palestinian officials have previously spoken out against any changes to its terms. What was striking, and perhaps most limiting, about the initiative was its simplicity, offering Israel comprehensive recognition in the Arab world in exchange for all lands conquered in the 1967 Mideast war.

It's unclear what effect the modified conditions, as outlined by Al Thani, might have on the Israeli-Palestinian impasse.

Israeli officials declined to immediately comment.

Kerry, who has been to the Middle East three times in his short stint as secretary of state, stressed that any peace process going forward would focus on bringing about "direct negotiations between the parties." He said the U.S. and the Arab League will hold continued consultations and more meetings because they agree that "peace between the Israelis and Palestinians would advance security, prosperity and stability in the Middle East."

"That is a common interest for the region and the whole world," he said.

Al Thani told reporters as the meeting started that the goal had to be a "fair deal for both parties."

Afterward, he stressed that the support his delegation gave for Mideast peace represented a "strategic choice for the Arab states."

Al Thani, whose country has maintained ties with the militant group Hamas in the Gaza Strip, also gave his backing to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas' peace efforts and called for greater aid for the struggling Palestinian economy.

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