Mubarak says Schalit deal could come soon

Egyptian president tells US Jewish leaders that once issue of Palestinian prisoners returning to W. Bank solved, deal can be sealed.

Mubarak 248 88 (photo credit: AP [file])
Mubarak 248 88
(photo credit: AP [file])
Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak told US Jewish leaders Monday that a deal which would return captive IDF soldier Gilad Schalit was within sight, according to several participants at the closed-door meeting. Egypt has been a central mediator in negotiations over a prisoner exchange between Israel and Hamas, which seized Schalit along the Gaza border in 2006. Several attempts at a deal have fallen apart in the past, but Mubarak characterized the conversations as being at a similar point to those held under former prime minister Ehud Olmert. Mubarak pointed to the issue of the repatriation of Palestinian security prisoners as a key sticking point, as whether they would be returned to the West Bank, Gaza or abroad has yet to be resolved. "He expressed some cautious optimism that this thing can be resolved in the not-too-distant future," said one representative of the eight national organizations who participated in the hour-long meeting, speaking anonymously because it was officially off the record. "He thinks there are opportunities out there and that we're 90 percent of the way there." Another Jewish leader felt Mubarak wanted to see the representatives at the meeting use their leverage with the Israeli government to help overcome the impasse, though other participants disagreed with that assessment. Egyptian officials could not be reached to confirm the comments. The repatriation issue was one of the main stumbling blocks to reaching an agreement with Hamas in the waning days of Olmert's government. At that time, Olmert demanded that a number of the prisoners considered especially dangerous be sent to third countries and not allowed into the territories, a demand Hamas rejected. The Prime Minister's Office, continuing its policy of a complete blackout on anything related to the Schalit case, declined to comment on the issue Monday night, saying that any public discussion on the matter would be counterproductive. Several of those at the meeting with Mubarak, which kicked off the 81-year-old Egyptian president's first Washington visit in five years, called the Arab leader somewhat optimistic about the prospects for peace in the region. Abraham Foxman of the Anti-Defamation League described Mubarak as positive about the possibility of progress toward peace, including praising Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu as a man of peace who could make the necessary deal as other Likud predecessors did. He added that Mubarak favored an approach that defined the endgame in the near future and then allowed much longer - even several years - to fill out the details, as took place during the Israeli-Egyptian peace negotiations. Several participants noted, though, that Mubarak urged patience when it came to resolving the conflict. Dennis Glick, chairman of the B'nai B'rith International executive board, characterized Mubarak as "optimistic but yet reserved, [saying] that we need to go slow." While Mubarak spoke of the need for Israel to take steps, like freezing settlements and delineating borders, he was less than forthcoming on what steps Arab countries would be willing to take as part of a reigniting of the peace process, according to those in attendance. US President Barack Obama has been urging Israelis and Arab countries as well as Palestinians to all take difficult steps in order to breathe new life into negotiations, but has so far had trouble convincing the sides to do so. That issue is expected to be one of the major ones that Obama takes up with Mubarak during their White House meeting on Tuesday. Mubarak also discussed the issue in a meeting with US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton later Monday, which came after meetings with former secretaries of state and defense and Middle East envoy George Mitchell. Clinton spoke positively of the prospects for advancement, saying after their meeting, "We're making progress, but I'm not going to preempt what the president will say." Obama will also be conferring with Mubarak about Hamas-Fatah unity talks - which Egypt has also helped mediate - and the challenge posed by Iran. Jewish leaders described Mubarak as reticent on the Iranian issue, implying that any Israeli attack over Teheran's nuclear program would be counterproductive because it would unify a currently divided Iranian public, but he was largely evasive on the topic. Overall, though, participants called the meeting positive and constructive. "The president was very open and responsive," Glick said. "He was very gracious in his time and his honesty." Herb Keinon contributed to this report from Jerusalem.