'Cairo still not comfortable with Lieberman'

Officials: Aboul-Gheit sending aide for J'lem talks shows Egypt keeping FM at a distance.

aboul gheit 248 88 (photo credit: AP)
aboul gheit 248 88
(photo credit: AP)
Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul-Gheit's top aide, ministry spokesman Hossam Zaki, arrived in Israel Sunday for high-level talks, an indication - according to diplomatic officials - that Cairo still does not feel comfortable with Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman. Zaki plays a much more dominant role in the Egyptian Foreign Ministry than his formal title would indicate. He is a senior-level diplomat who is not only a close adviser to Gheit, but is in charge of the Middle East file, including the peace process, in the Egyptian Foreign Ministry. Asked Sunday night why he came to Israel rather than Gheit, Zaki replied, "I'm doing my job, it's as simple as that." Earlier in the day, he held talks on the diplomatic situation with National Security Council head Uzi Arad, Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon and Foreign Ministry Director-General Yossi Gal. Zaki said he came to Israel to see how "we can move the whole thing - the political track - forward," and to explore peoples' views. "We're trying to find ways to bridge the gaps" in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, he added. "People need to make hard choices here, to make decisions on where they want to go, and whether they want to engage in a meaningful process." As for the two-state solution, Zaki said that during his meetings Sunday, he heard, "lots of words that may lead to it, but without pronouncing the real words." Despite Zaki's senior standing, one diplomatic official said the fact that Zaki had come to Jerusalem instead of Gheit indicated that the Egyptians were still keeping Lieberman at a distance. Lieberman infuriated them in the past for suggesting that Israel could bomb the Aswan Dam, and for saying that if Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak did not want to visit Israel, than he could "go to hell." Zaki was the second-highest ranking Egyptian official to visit Israel since the Netanyahu government was formed on March 31. The first visitor was Egyptian intelligence chief Omar Suleiman, who did meet Lieberman. That meeting, according to diplomatic officials, should not have been interpreted as Egyptian acceptance of the foreign minister, since Suleiman has a unique standing in Cairo and - as intelligence chief - is expected to meet everyone. The same is not the case with Gheit. Zaki's visit came just days before Suleiman and Gheit are scheduled to fly to Washington for talks with the Obama administration. The two Egyptian officials are going instead of Mubarak, who canceled his scheduled meeting with Obama after the sudden death of a grandson last week. Suleiman and Gheit are scheduled to meet in Washington with US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, National Security Adviser James Jones, and Mideast envoy George Mitchell. Mubarak is scheduled to meet Obama when the US president goes to Cairo on June 4 to deliver an address on US-Muslim relations.