'Basis for direct talks lacking'

Egyptian FM pessimistic after Netanyahu meets with Mubarak in Cairo.

Mubarak and Netanyahu. (photo credit: Associated Press)
Mubarak and Netanyahu.
(photo credit: Associated Press)
Israeli officials continued to express optimism on Sunday that direct talks with the Palestinians were imminent, even as Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit said that more needed to be done to bridge the gaps between the two sides.
Aboul Gheit’s comments followed a meeting in Cairo between Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and President Hosni Mubarak that were aimed at securing Arab League approval for moving from proximity to direct talks.
RELATED:PM, Abbas to meet Mubarak in EgyptPA not ruling out direct talks“There must be a strong Israeli strategic move that would deepen Palestinian trust in Israel’s intentions, so we can move from indirect to direct talks,” Aboul Gheit said. “Egypt thinks there is the need for direct talks, that they are the road to reach a settlement... but to have these direct talks, the atmosphere must be ripe and enough progress made.”
Egypt’s top diplomat also said there was still a need for more discussion and diplomacy to narrow the divide and build trust.
“We are still hopeful that we can bridge that gap, the gap between the needs of security for Israel and the borders for the Palestinians,” Aboul Gheit said. “You have to create the basis to proceed from indirect to direct talks. That is still lacking. We need to help the Americans and both parties to come closer to each other.”
He said Mubarak had received a message on Sunday from US President Barack Obama and a telephone call from Secretary of State Hillary Clinton urging a swift move to direct peace talks.
Aboul Gheit said he hoped that by September, if not sooner, there would be enough progress to allow the Palestinians and Israel to sit at the same negotiating table. Both Netanyahu and Obama have said they want to see the talks begin sooner.
The 10-month settlement housing-start freeze that Netanyahu announced last year expires on September 26, and both Israel and the US have expressed interest in having the direct talks begin before then, with the hope that some kind of acceptable formula could be worked out on the matter between the sides during the talks.
Israeli defense officials have said that Israel is considering expanding the role of Palestinian Authority security forces in West Bank towns and removing more IDF checkpoints that hinder the movement of people and goods.
When asked about these steps and whether they constituted trust-building, Aboul Gheit said they “address certain problems.”
“But I think we have to focus on [freezing] settlement activity, a time frame and the 1967 lines,” he added.
Before going to Egypt, Netanyahu met with US envoy George Mitchell, and upon his return he met with EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, and then with Quartet envoy Tony Blair. These meetings all took place despite a brewing coalition crisis with Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman and Israel Beiteinu.
Mubarak met separately with Netanyahu, Mitchell – who also went to Cairo on Sunday – and PA President Mahmoud Abbas. Though Abbas and Netanyahu were in Cairo at the same time, there were no indications that they met.
Mitchell, also looking for Arab League support to move to direct talks, held a meeting with the organization’s head, Amr Moussa. AFP quoted Moussa as saying that written guarantees were needed from Israel to move to direct talks.
“We cannot automatically move from one negotiation to another without written guarantees,” he said.
Moussa, who met with Abbas on Saturday, added, “I felt the Palestinian president was committed to the decisions of the ministerial council [of Arab foreign ministers] that the automatic transition from indirect to direct negotiations is not feasible.”
Abbas said in an interview published on Saturday that he would not negotiate directly with Netanyahu unless Israel agreed to recognize the June 4, 1967, lines as a basis for the borders of a future Palestinian state and accepted the deployment of an international force in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.
Abbas has apparently backed down from conditioning the talks on a complete halt of all construction in the settlements, and all construction by Jews in east Jerusalem.
EU's Ashton visited Gaza
Meanwhile, Ashton visited Gaza and then Sderot on Sunday, stressing throughout the day – including in a meeting later with Lieberman – the need for greater movement of goods in and out of the Strip, while at the same time recognizing Israel’s security needs.
“The answer here is opening the crossings,” AFP quoted Ashton as saying at a press conference at a UN school in Gaza.
“People here recognize and understand the security needs of Israel,” she went on. “But that should not prevent the ability to be able to see the free flow of goods into and out of Gaza in order that houses can be rebuilt, children can go to fully functioning schools and businesses can flourish.”
Ashton did not meet any Hamas officials.
Later, at a press conference with Lieberman, Ashton said the EU would consider playing a role in operating the crossings into Gaza, and that various ideas were being discussed, but no concrete proposal had yet come to the EU.
Following her visit to Gaza, her second this year, Ashton met Israeli officials at the Erez crossing, who explained how Israel had eased its restrictions on the area.
In Sderot, she said a solution was needed that would ensure Israeli security.
“It was very important for me to come here, because looking at the examples of the [Kassam] missiles demonstrates how important it is that we build together a solution that recognizes the importance of the security of Israel, and prevents these missiles coming and creating destruction,” she said.
Lieberman met with Ashton in Jerusalem on Sunday evening.
At a press conference following their meeting, Ashton expressed sympathy for the family of kidnapped soldier Gilad Schalit and called for his release.
“I can understand the great pain of Aviva and Noam Schalit after four years since the kidnapping,” Ashton said.
She called upon the Hamas leadership to allow the Red Cross to visit Schalit in his captivity.
Ashton is scheduled to meet the Schalit family on Monday before leaving.
AP contributed to this report.