Israel would be willing to begin negotiations with the Palestinian Authority at a low level to enable the PA to enter the talks, Defense Minister Ehud Barak told Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak on Wednesday, during a meeting in Sharm e-Sheikh, defense officials said.

The idea of starting the negotiations at a lower level, and not in direct talks between Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and PA President Mahmoud Abbas, was one of the "new ideas" US envoy George Mitchell brought to the region last week.

Netanyahu characterized those "new ideas" as "interesting," and said that - if accepted by the Palestinians - they could pave the way back to talks. He has not yet elaborated exactly what those ideas were.

Abbas has said he would not renew the talks until Netanyahu declared a total settlement freeze, including new Jewish construction in east Jerusalem. Netanyahu has refused that demand.

Barak, after meeting privately with Mubarak, and then separately with Egyptian Intelligence Chief Omar Suleiman and Defense Minister Field Marshal Muhammad Hussein Tantawi, told reporters that negotiations could begin within "weeks or months."

On Monday, after meeting twice over a period of three days with Mitchell, Barak told the Labor faction that talks could begin "within two months."

"On the surface the diplomatic process appears asleep and frozen, but I don't think that's really accurate," he said at the Labor faction gathering. "Under the surface both sides want negotiations."

According to the German Press Agency, Barak said after his meetings in Sharm e-Sheikh that the talks with the Egyptian leaders "offered an opportunity for in-depth and productive discussions on ways to revitalize and restart negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian side."

Barak was accompanied by Netanyahu's envoy Yitzhak Molcho.

In addition to dealing with the diplomatic process, the talks, according to a statement released afterward by Barak's office, also dealt with kidnapped soldier Gilad Schalit and "regional issues."

In recent months the US has been trying to get Egypt to help lead the Arab world toward shepherding Abbas back to the negotiating table.

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