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(photo credit: AP)
US President Barack Obama and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak both spoke Tuesday of positive momentum developing in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process after months of disputes and setbacks.
"There has been movement in the right direction," Obama told reporters as he stood beside Mubarak, during the latter's first visit to the White House since 2002. "I'm encouraged by some of the things I'm seeing on the ground."
He was responding to a question concerning reports that Israel has stopped approving new construction in the West Bank, and also spoke about the growth in the Palestinian economy and improvement in security efforts by the Palestinian Authority.
"All of this is creating a climate in which it's possible for us to see some positive steps and hopefully negotiate towards a final resolution of these longstanding issues," Obama said. "It's going to require a lot of hard work, and the United States is committed to being a partner in this process."
Mubarak pointed to ongoing conversations he's had with the Israeli leadership recently.
"We are speaking in a good manner and we are moving into the right direction," he said, though he stressed that it was essential for talks between Israelis and Palestinians to begin.
"If negotiations start, this will lead to the Arab states to support the peace process and to move it forward, because I can tell you that the Arab people are fed up with the length that this issue has taken, and the issue of the displaced people," he said. "So I believe if the two parties sit down, this will lead to have Arab states support moving the peace process forward."
The Obama administration, however, has been insisting that Arab nations, as well as Israelis and Palestinians, take steps from the outset to help create conditions for productive negotiations to occur. The Egyptian formulation - as well as others expressed in recent weeks by Arab leaders - seemed to oppose that strategy.
In a press briefing conducted in Arabic on Monday, Mubarak spokesman Suleiman Awad said that "we have a public opinion that we ought to respect, don't ask us more than we are able to give or bear."
He added that "other Arab countries can take some steps, but only if Israel stops settlements and takes the initiative to resume negotiations... The ball is in Israel's court."
Egypt already has a peace treaty with Israel, so the steps toward normalization under consideration - including opening trade offices, allowing Israeli planes overflight rights and granting Israelis visas - would be relevant for other states.
At the same time, Awad said that the Obama efforts are bearing fruit, with movement towards a formal presentation of an American initiative, set to be unveiled in September.
"There is an American peace plan shaping up and will be ready next month as we have been told," he said.
US officials have indicated that US Middle East envoy George Mitchell is nearing the conclusion of his consultations with the various parties and looking to unveil the steps agreed to by each as part of a formal kick-off of new negotiations.
The launch of the process is likely to take place at an international conference of some sort, though no final decision has been made.
In an interview with PBS over the weekend, Mubarak had said that his country was working hard to secure the release of captured IDF soldier Gilad Schalit, who he called "our prisoner." He noted that German mediators were also involved in the effort.
However, he said that Israeli "terms and conditions" were getting in the way of progress.
"The deal or the agreement was to take care of Schalit and that Israel would release a number of prisoners, and when this is done we will hand over Schalit to the Israelis," Mubarak told the US television station. "We are still following this. Our intelligence organization is working on that, and we still have hope to conclude this on a good note."
The Egyptian president also seemed to speak against recent US demands that Israel halt all settlement construction in the West Bank.
When asked whether such building had to stop to secure a peace agreement between Israel and the Arab world, Mubarak told the US television station, "Instead of saying stopping more settlements [sic] - and we heard this many times, now for over 10 years, and [they] never come to a stop - what I can say is that we have to consider the whole issue holistically, to negotiate on the final resolution."
Asked whether Iran plays a destabilizing role in the region, Mubarak voiced support for opposition elements within the Islamic republic, quipping, "I say to Iran, 'if you complain of interventions from external forces in Iran, I would say to you, don't interfere with the home affairs of other Arab countries like Lebanon, like Hamas and others. Since you complain of this external or foreign interference, so don't do it with other countries.'"
He also said that "the whole region should be free of all forms, all types of mass effective weaponsâ€¦ nuclear or not nuclear, whether Iran or Israel."
On Tuesday, the London-based daily al-Quds al-Arabi reported that Mubarak and Obama were set to discuss a new proposal for the establishment of a Palestinian state.
According to the report, the initiative would see Palestinians give up on the 'right of return' in exchange for monetary compensation.
The Palestinian state would also be demilitarized, according to the plan, and have Jerusalem has its capital shared with Israel.
The Jerusalem Post could not confirm the report.
JPost.com staff contributed to this report