Egypt's foreign minister urged Israel on Friday to release 1,000 Palestinian prisoners in exchange for captured soldier Gilad Schalit.
Egypt has been mediating a prisoner swap and Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit said Israel needs to show flexibility.
A year ago, Hamas leader Mahmoud Zahar accused Israel of going back on a promise to release 1,000 Palestinian prisoners for Shalit who was captured by Hamas-allied operatives in a cross-border raid near the Gaza border in 2006.
"If you want a soldier, if you need a certain commodity and you are ready to pay in that commodity then pay for the sake of the soldier - give the Palestinians what they are after," Aboul Gheit said in an interview with the Associated Press on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly.
"I think what they are after [is] 1,000 prisoners that would be exchanged for the sake of the soldier Shalit," he said.
"I would encourage people to do [it]," Aboul Gheit said. "Why not? What is wrong? Give them the thousand and take your soldier and give him back to his family and his people and let the family enjoy having him back."
The Egyptian minister said a prisoner swap could also lead to an opening of border crossings into Gaza.
"The problem is the Israelis are insisting there will not be a permanent opening of the crossings unless Shalit is released," Aboul Gheit said.
"What we are telling the Israelis," Aboul Gheit said, "[is to] make the exchange and facilitate for yourself and for the Palestinians."
Egypt is also trying to mediate a power-sharing deal between Palestinian rivals Hamas and Fatah, which controls the Palestinian Authority and the West Bank.
"Eventually, we're sure that we will manage to bring the Palestinians together," Aboul Gheit said.
Also Friday, Aboul Gheit warned that a nuclear-capable Israel and an Iran pursuing nuclear weapons could trigger a nuclear arms race in the Middle East.
In an interview with the Associated Press, he said that Iran has a right to the peaceful use of nuclear energy but it must be verified.
If the existence of a new uranium plant was kept secret, he said, "that will shed doubts, of course, on the credibility of the Iranian position, no doubt about it."
Iran kept the facility hidden from weapons inspectors until a letter it sent to the International Atomic Energy Agency on Monday.
Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad told a news conference Friday that the facility is part of its peaceful pursuit of nuclear energy, which is allowed under the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty.
Aboul Gheit stressed that every country has the right to the peaceful use of nuclear energy.
Saudi Arabia, Gulf countries and Egypt have all talked about establishing nuclear energy programs, and the United States has said it is willing to help them.
In the case of Iran, Aboul Gheit said, "one has to verify - is it a peaceful nuclear effort or [if] it has an objective beyond."
"If it has an objective beyond, of course, Egypt very much objects to the introduction of nuclear weapons to this part of the world," he said.
"I hope that we would manage to verify that the Iranians are not going nuclear militarily," he said.
Aboul Gheit recalled that Egypt and Iran started pressing for the Middle East to be a nuclear weapons-free zone in 1974, and the two countries presented draft resolutions to the UN General Assembly for years calling for the establishment of such a zone.
If it turns out "that there is a military component for that Iranian nuclear project, then that would complicate very much the situation in the Middle East," he said.
Asked whether Iran's suspected nuclear ambitions and Israel's suspected nuclear arsenal could trigger an arms race by other countries in the Middle East to get nuclear weapons, in spite of calls for a nuclear weapons-free zone, Aboul Gheit replied: "Yes, and I'm of that view."
"Why is it so?," he asked. "Because if we have, what we assume a nuclear capable Israel and if we see that Iran is also ... acquiring a nuclear capability, then we would have two players in that part of the world, one on the Mediterranean, Israel, and the other on the [Persian] Gulf."
"So you would see, and you would find that you have a land mass of Arab countries and Arab people that do not feel at ease with that setting," Aboul Gheit said. "I would feel that the Turks would also be uneasy like a country like Egypt."
He wouldn't speculate how Egypt might respond.
"But the situation would be uneasy and it would trigger an arms race, no doubt about it," Aboul Gheit said. "Experience has taught us that you introduce one weapon, somebody else will try to acquire always that weapon."
He noted that only a day ago when the UN Security Council, at a meeting chaired by President Barack Obama, unanimously adopted a resolution endorsing a sweeping strategy aimed at halting the spread of nuclear weapons and ultimately eliminating them "we were all ready to endorse the results."
"No one wants proliferation in this part of the world," Aboul Gheit said.
He said the international community should pressure Israel to become a party to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, which would open its nuclear facilities to IAEA inspection. Israel has never acknowledged its nuclear program.
Arab League Secretary General Amr Moussa echoed that view.
"We have to consider the Middle East as a zone free from nuclear weapons," Amr Moussa told a news conference. "That should apply to all countries, including Iran and Israel."
Jpost.com staff contributed to this report.