Egyptian Foreign Minister Offers Rare Praise for Netanyahu

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu met yesterday with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and other senior Egyptian officials to discuss renewing Mideast peace talks. Afterward, Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit offered rare praise for Netanyahu, commending him for raising various new ideas for advancing the peace process.

Aboul Gheit did not offer details of Mubarak's discussion with Netanyahu at Cairo's Presidential Palace, but said he is convinced the Israeli leader is serious about resuming talks with the Palestinians.

"I can't talk about details, but the prime minister was discussing positions that surpass, in our estimate, what we've heard from them in a long time," Aboul Gheit said. "I can't say that he has come with changed positions, but he is moving forward."

Aboul Gheit said Netanyahu left the impression that he genuinely wants to get diplomacy moving again. "Everything is on the table," the Egyptian told the Associated Press, adding that settlement construction must be halted for negotiations to succeed.

The Obama administration is currently working with the Egyptian government to persuade Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas to restart talks with Israel. Top Egyptian officials are scheduled to travel to Washington in the coming days to coordinate negotiating positions with their American counterparts.

U.S. Mideast envoy George Mitchell will arrive in Israel on January 7, and shortly thereafter will present Palestinian representatives with a proposal for bringing Abbas back to the negotiating table. The Palestinian president has stated on several recent occasions that talks could proceed only following a complete halt to settlement construction in the West Bank and East Jerusalem.

Mitchell and his staff are expected to offer Abbas a two-year timetable for arriving at a final-status agreement based on the June 4, 1967 borders.

Netanyahu presented Mubarak with understandings he had reached with the U.S. administration on relaunching peace talks, including his positions on Palestinian refugees, borders (including Jerusalem), territorial exchanges and security arrangements.

The Israeli leader told his Egyptian counterpart that given his government's understandings with Washington and his willingness to advance the diplomatic process, Mubarak must do his part to pressure Abbas to return to the table.

Last week, Industry, Trade and Labor Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer (Labor) suggested to Mubarak that he invite Abbas, Netanyahu and American representatives to attend a summit in Cairo on renewing the talks.

Mubarak told Netanyahu yesterday that should talks be relaunched, the issue of borders should be the first topic under discussion, as it would remove the current ambiguity over settlement construction, clearly delineating where building is permitted and where it is prohibited.

Mubarak's call for setting borders as an initial step has already been made by American officials. In talks with Netanyahu envoy Yitzhak Molcho, Mitchell recommended focusing on the border between Israel and a future Palestinian state before addressing other issues. The Obama administration has stated it believes significant progress can be made on borders even before the end of the 10-month construction freeze.

Netanyahu's bureau offered few details about the prime minister's talks with the Egyptians other than a laconic statement terming the talks "friendly and positive."

Netanyahu and Mubarak, the statement said, "discussed ways of moving the diplomatic process with the Palestinians forward, as well as the issue of Gilad Shalit," and "the Egyptian president expressed his commitment to advancing the peace process."