Peace first, normalcy with Israel later: Egypt

Mubarak begins US visit with talks with Jewish leaders


Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak opened talks here Monday as pressure builds on the U.S. administration to launch a new peace push to break a deadlock between Israel and Arab countries.

Mubarak started talks with Jewish leaders and was later to meet with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. On Tuesday, Mubarak -- who had tense ties with President George W. Bush -- holds his first White House summit in five years.

President Barack Obama has shown new deference to the octogenarian Egyptian leader, with his administration saying it wanted to consult with him before launching any major new initiative in the Middle East.

But U.S. hopes to push forward the peace plan before the Muslim holy month of Ramadan starts later this week look increasingly slim as Israel and Arab states both insist that the other make the first move.

Settlement expansion

Obama is pressuring Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's right-leaning government to stop Jewish settlement expansion in the occupied West Bank while asking Arab states to take at least symbolic steps to reconcile with Israel.

Mubarak said he told Obama in June -- when the U.S. leader chose Cairo as the backdrop for a landmark speech reaching out to the Islamic world -- that Israel must freeze settlements.

U.S. Middle East envoy George Mitchell in July called on Arab states to take "meaningful steps towards normalization of relations with Israel."

"I explained to President Obama in Cairo that the Arab initiative offers the recognition of Israel and normalization of ties with it after, and not before, a just and lasting peace is achieved," Mubarak told the state-controlled Al-Ahram newspaper.

The Arab League in 2002 endorsed a peace plan calling for Arab states to recognize Israel in an exchange for Israel's withdrawal from the land it occupied in war in 1967 and an equitable resolution for Palestinian refugees.

Only two Arab countries, Egypt and Jordan, have signed peace treaties with the Jewish state while some other Arab countries have trade relations.

"Some Arab countries that exchanged representatives and trade offices might think of reopening these offices if Israel committed itself to stop settlement expansion and to resume final status peace negotiations," Mubarak said.

His position is in line with other Arab nations. Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal of Saudi Arabia, which proposed the 2002 initiative, last month in Washington ruled out a "step by step" diplomatic approach.

The United States has taken a firm line against settlements and condemned Israel earlier this month for expelling Palestinian families in east Jerusalem. The Jewish state sees the entire holy city as its "eternal, undivided" capital.

explained to President Obama in Cairo that the Arab initiative offers the recognition of Israel and normalization of ties with it after, and not before, a just and lasting peace is achieved

Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak

Tense relations

Relations between Cairo and Washington were tense under Bush, whose support of Israel and invasion of Iraq were unpopular but who also pressed Mubarak to release dissidents and hold free elections.

Egyptian dissident Ayman Nour, who was freed earlier this year after three years in prison, accused Obama of neglecting pledges to support political reform.

Nour, speaking to AFP in Cairo, called it a "setback in the promotion of the values Obama pledged to support during his election campaign."

"It betrays American values," he said.

The young lawyer mounted an unprecedented challenge to Mubarak in the 2005 presidential election before being jailed on forgery charges many saw as trumped up.