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(photo credit: AP [file])
Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu will on Monday take his first trip abroad since assuming office, traveling to Sharm e-Sheikh for a meeting with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak during which he is expected to discuss how he sees the regional challenges, and where he wants to take the diplomatic process.
The visit comes a week before Netanyahu is scheduled to travel to the US for his first meeting as prime minister with President Barack Obama.
According to government sources, Netanyahu will give Mubarak a preview of the diplomatic plan he will discuss with Obama.
Discussions were still under way with the Jordanians about the possibility of a meeting with King Abdullah II before Netanyahu went to Washington, officials in the Prime Minister's Office said.
It was "no accident" that Netanyahu's first trip was to Egypt, and that this was a "sign of the importance he attaches to the relationship with those Arab counties with whom Israel has peace, and was an indication of Jerusalem's desire to work more closely and in greater coordination with these countries," government sources said.
While Industry, Trade and Labor Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer, who has good ties with the Egyptian government, will be accompanying Netanyahu, no official from the Foreign Ministry will be joining him on the trip.
Israel's ambassador to Egypt, Shlomo Cohen, however, is expected to be involved in the meetings.
Officials in both the Foreign Ministry and the Prime Minister's Office denied that the absence of a Foreign Ministry official on Netanyahu's plane had anything to do with Egyptian discomfort with Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, pointing out that there were times when Foreign Ministry officials did not accompany prime minister Ehud Olmert to Egypt as well.
The talks would deal with the whole range of pressing regional issues, from Iran to the Palestinian conciliation talks, to the fate of kidnapped soldier Gilad Schalit, government sources said.
"There is a unique opportunity for cooperation," one government source said. "Not only do we have common goals - regional stability and strengthening the peace process - but also we have common threats: Iran and its loyal proxies Hizbullah and Hamas."
Some Egyptian commentators, however, warned against overstating the case.
Gamal Abdel Gawad, head of the international relations unit of the Al-Ahram Political and Strategic Studies, said there was a sense in Cairo that Israel was trying to "divert the world's attention from Arab-Israeli issues to confronting the Iranian nuclear program."
While Iran was a main concern for Egypt and many other countries in the region, their priority remained the Palestinian issue, Gawad said.
"I think the Israeli prime minister is having difficulty marketing his views in that regard not only in the Middle East, but also abroad."
In addition, "There is a deep belief in the Arab world that... if you want to deny Iran the many bargaining chips it is using, you have to address the Arab-Israeli conflict," he said.
Regarding the Palestinian track, Gawad said, "It seems like there is confusion, rather than a strategy."
Israel seemed to be sending signals in different directions, "not outright rejection of the two-state solution but at the same time trying to play down and fully [avoid] talking about it," he said.
Issues such as a cease-fire in Gaza and a potential prisoner exchange deal between Hamas and Israel were less important than Israel's overall strategy vis-a-vis the peace process, Gawad said.
Abdel Monem Said Aly, the director of the Al-Ahram center, said that in talks between Israeli and Egyptian leaders "there is always one agenda: the Palestinian-Israeli agenda."
He said Mubarak was particularly concerned about the stabilization of Gaza, which was under a "de facto cease-fire" rather than a formal one.
"The situation is a bit precarious," he said. "There is a period of calm that has been interrupted from time to time by rockets and attacks."
Mubarak would like to help broker an understanding between the two sides to avoid repeating a situation like Israel's three-week military operation earlier this year, Said Aly said.
Emad Gad, head of the Israel unit at Al-Ahram, said while Netanyahu's visit signaled an important message that the two counties were not interested in "a cold peace," they were also trying to deliver a message to the new US administration that they were ready for peace in the region, at least according to their own vision.
The meeting was also a chance for Mubarak to determine whether the issue of Schalit was a real priority for the new Israeli government, Gad said.
"Are they ready to make a deal or not?" he asked. "Is [Netanyahu] ready to send an envoy to resume negotiations?"
On Thursday, Egyptian Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit stressed the importance of urgent action to pressure the Israeli government "to return to the path of peace" and to help realize the two-state solution.
In a meeting with Josette Durrieu of the Council of Europe's Parliamentary Assembly, Aboul Gheit warned against the failure to continue efforts to achieve peace "because of its dramatic impact on regional and global stability," according to a statement from the Egyptian Foreign Ministry.
He also denied that the rift between Palestinian factions was the reason that peace has not been achieved. He rejected the idea that there was no Palestinian partner for peace, confirming that "Abbas is the legitimate president of the Palestinian people and that he is a capable and effective partner to achieve peace."