Efforts intensify to relaunch peace talks by month's end
Netanyahu discusses resuming peace talks in Cairo, while Mitchell holds high-level talks in J'lem.
By HERB KEINON, KHALED ABU TOAMEH
Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak urged Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu to halt settlement construction during a Cairo meeting on Sunday, Israel Radio reported Monday morning. According to the report, the Egyptian president said that continued building was hindering efforts to advance Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations.
The meeting took place as US Mideast envoy George Mitchell was holding high-level talks in Jerusalem, as part of efforts to together a package to enable the announcement of a renewal of peace talks.
Netanyahu flew to Cairo for a meeting with Mubarak in the late afternoon and returned a few hours later. His Monday meeting with Mitchell in Jerusalem was postponed until Tuesday, so that the prime minister could attend the funeral of Assaf Ramon, who was killed Sunday when the F-16 jet he was piloting crashed south of Hebron.
The Prime Minister's Office issued a statement saying he and Mubarak met to discuss recent developments and a wide range of international, regional and bilateral issues.
"The discussions were fruitful and were conducted in a friendly atmosphere. The president and the prime minister discussed the challenges facing the region and the need for all sides - Israel, the Palestinians, the Arab countries and the international community - to contribute their part to moving the peace process forward," the statement read.
According to the statement, which was thin on details, the two also discussed the situation in the Gaza Strip, as well as kidnapped soldier Gilad Schalit.
Netanyahu did not take the press on the visit; he was accompanied by Shas head Interior Minister Eli Yishai, a newly appointed member of the inner cabinet, as well as close advisers. The meeting itself was closed to the press, and Egypt's official Middle East News Agency sufficed to reporting afterward that the two "discussed the peace process, specifically the Palestinian track."
No joint statement was issued after the meeting.
Mitchell, meanwhile, met President Shimon Peres, Defense Minister Ehud Barak, and Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman on Sunday, and made clear that while progress has been made in the talks with Israel, there were still a number of issues to work out.
"While we have not yet reached agreement on any issues, we are working hard to do so - and indeed the purpose of my visit here this week is to attempt to do so," Mitchell said during his meeting with Peres.
"The suggestions that we have finalized and reached an agreement on a range of issues - while inaccurate, because they are premature, we hope they will be accurate."
The US, according to diplomatic officials, would like to have a package in place that would enable a meeting on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly meeting in New York next week between Netanyahu, US President Barack Obama, and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. The US hope, according to these officials, is that a resumption of negotiations could be announced at that meeting.
Among the issues Mitchell and Netanyahu, who met some three weeks ago, are expected to discuss Monday are the length of a settlement moratorium, the parameters of the negotiations with the Palestinians, and what the Arab world will be giving Israel in the form of normalization gestures.
On Tuesday Mitchell is scheduled to meet Abbas. It is not clear whether he will be travelling to any neighboring states during this visit.
Netanyahu, in his opening comments to the cabinet on Sunday, also said that while the gaps were closing with the US, there was still work to do.
"We have made progress on certain items; there are also certain items on which we have yet to make progress. I hope that we will succeed in reducing the gaps; maybe we will bridge them, so that we can move the process forward," he said.
"From our point of view, there are no delays to this. It is not we who are placing obstacles against entering into a diplomatic process. From our point-of-view, this could be done tomorrow, even yesterday."
Peres, in a public appearance less than 24 hours after collapsing during a speech Saturday night, said Israel was happy to have Mitchell back.
"I believe that it is in the interests of all of the sides involved not to let September pass without renewing negotiations," he said."I hope that during your visit we will deal with all of the issues on the agenda, so that by the end of the month we will be free to deal with the most important issue of all - establishing peace with Palestinians and the entire Arab world."
Peres said that both sides were dealing with difficult issues.
"Our prime minister overcame severe challenges, as did the pragmatic Palestinians, who support the negotiations," he said.
Peres said that while there was definitely no love lost on either side, "peace will bring love."
Mitchell began the meeting by saying that Peres looked "strong, healthy and well," to which Peres responded: "It is better when you consider the alternative."
"I bring you the personal greetings of President Obama and Secretary of State Clinton, both of whom share my admiration for you personally, and my respect for your judgment, wisdom and guidance," Mitchell said.
Peres took the opportunity to thank the numerous well-wishers, including Mubarak, who called to inquire about his health.
Meanwhile intra-Palestinian Hamas-Fatah wrangling was focused on the date of presidential and legislative elections. Abbas informed the Egyptians Sunday that he would not agree to any delay of the presidential and legislative elections that are supposed to be held in January 2010.
The latest Egyptian initiative for resolving the Hamas-Fatah power struggle calls for holding the elections "during the first half of next year."
Although Abbas and his Fatah faction have welcomed the initiative, they nevertheless continue to insist that the elections be held on time.
"January 25, 2010 is a sacred day for us," said Jibril Rajoub, member of the Fatah Central Committee. "All parties must respect this date."
Rajoub and another Central Committee member, Hussein al-Sheikh, are currently in Cairo for talks on the initiative, which basically turns Hamas into a full partner in running the affairs of the Palestinians.
Rajoub and al-Sheikh were dispatched to Cairo by Abbas following an emergency meeting of Fatah and PLO representatives in Ramallah over the weekend to discuss the Egyptian proposal.
The two met on Saturday night with Gen. Omar Suleiman, head of Egypt's General Intelligence Service. On Sunday, they held talks with Foreign Minister Ahmad Aboul Geith.
Rajoub said the talks focused on efforts to achieve reconciliation between Fatah and Hamas, the upcoming meeting of the United Nations General Assembly and US plans to revive the Middle East peace process.
Rajoub said that despite Fatah's reservations about the timing of the elections, his faction continued to relate to national unity with Hamas as a top priority.
Yasser Abed Rabbo, a senior PLO official and adviser to Abbas, said that the Palestinian leadership had accepted the Egyptian initiative in principle.
But, he added, "We insist that the elections be held on time and that all other measures be in line with the Palestinian constitution."
Noting that the PA was spending half of its budget on the Gaza Strip, Abed Rabbo held Hamas responsible for the "economic, social and political destruction" there.
Another senior Fatah official, Nabil Sha'ath, said that he and some of his colleagues were planning to visit the Gaza Strip later this month for talks with Hamas on ways of ending the rift between the two sides.
Sha'ath said that Fatah was eager to hold elections not only in the West Bank, but in the Gaza Strip as well. He said that the only reservation that Fatah has about the Egyptian initiative was related to the timing of the vote.
Sha'ath added that in any case Fatah was seeking "real political partnership" through a national unity government with Hamas.
Hamas denied on Sunday that its leader, Khaled Mashaal, had arrived in Cairo for additional talks on the prospects of achieving unity with Fatah. Reports in some Arab media outlets had claimed that Mashaal was summoned to Cairo for the third time in less than a week to discuss the new reconciliation plan.
Greer Fay Cashman and Jpost.com staff contributed to this report.
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