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Officials in Jerusalem expressed satisfaction early Monday that Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak did not reject Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's realignment plan at a press conference the two held in Sharm e-Sheikh in the Sinai Peninsula on Sunday.
Responding to a reporter's question regarding his support for the unilateral withdrawal plan, Mubarak said that if the Israelis and Palestinians failed to advance the negotiations between them, a "different discussion" would be required, according to Israel Radio.
[For a Jerusalem Online video of events click here]
Mubarak, who has criticized Olmert's plan in the past, did not comment directly on the possibility, but stressed that "the main goal is to bring the parties to the negotiating table."
At the Sharm summit, Olmert confirmed that he would meet with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in order to give negotiations a chance. However, he suggested that if conditions were not met, Israel would take unilateral steps.
"Israel is committed to the Road Map and to promoting the bilateral track with Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas," Olmert said at the press conference that marked his first visit to Egypt since taking office. "My desire (is) to advance this avenue and I intend to meet with Chairman Abbas in order to make continuing progress according to the Road Map."
However, "If this does not happen, or when we come to the conclusion that it is not happening, we will have no choice but to find other ways to move the situation in the Middle East forward and not to allow stagnation to take hold," he emphasized.
The Road Map and the principles of the Quartet were Israel's conditions for negotiations, said Olmert. They call for an end to Palestinian-sponsored terror attacks on Israel. The Road Map also requires the Hamas-led PA government to recognize Israel, renounce terror and accept previous agreements reached between Israel and the Palestinian Authority. The Palestinian government has refused until now to accept such conditions.
The press conference took place following a 90-minute meeting between the two leaders at the Royal Club in Egypt's famed resort town on the tip of the Sinai Peninsula. A long red carpet led up the steps to the club's entrance. Israeli flags flew in the dry hot wind next to Egyptian flags outside.
It was Olmert's first meeting with Mubarak since he was elected to the premiership. The two had met once before when Olmert served as minister of trade and industry.
Olmert began his speech by expressing his "deep regret" over the killing of two Egyptian policemen by Israeli soldiers at the Sinai border on Friday. The two were killed after opening fire on Israeli soldiers in what is now believed to have been a misidentification. The two leaders said they opened a joint investigation into the incident to prevent such incidents from recurring.
Olmert also announced that the two sides agreed to cooperate and coordinate in the fight against international terrorism.
Though the prime minister stated that negotiations with the Palestinians were his foremost objective, he hinted that he had told Mubarak of his plans in case bilateral talks with the Palestinians failed.
"The president knows what other thoughts I have, but at the moment we are trying to find a way to get to negotiations," Olmert said. "That's what the president wants, that's what I prefer, and this is what I hope the Palestinians will agree to."
At the press conference, the leaders both said they admired each other. Mubarak called Olmert a man of "peace, vision and integrity." Olmert praised Mubarak profusely and promised to consult with him on issues concerning the Middle East.
At the end of his speech, Olmert put down his papers and pronounced that he had something personal - "not written on paper" - to say. "Mr. President, it was a very emotional experience for me to sit with you now for one-and-a-half hours and to listen to you, one of the most experienced and one of the most important leaders that I ever had the opportunity to meet."
As Ya'acov Seti, spokesman of the Israeli Embassy in Cairo, translated Olmert's words, Mubarak listened closely. When Olmert finished speaking the warm atmosphere in the room was palpable. The two shook hands and patted each other on the back, then posed for photos with genuine smiles.
Egyptian journalists working for Egyptian state television told The Jerusalem Post afterwards that they got a "very positive" first impression from Olmert. "He seems serious and like a man of action," said one. "He's better than Sharon."