Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit said Sunday that more work needs to be done to bridge the gap between Israel and the Palestinians before they can move to direct peace talks.
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu met separately with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in Cairo on Sunday.
At the conclusion of the Mubarak-Netanyhau meeting, which lasted more than two hours, the prime minister said that "President Mubarak represents the aspiration to expand the circle of peace, stability and security to all the region's peoples. I view him as a central partner in achieving these important goals."
Abbas has refused to negotiate directly with Netanyahu unless Israel agrees to recognize its 1967 borders as a basis for drawing a future Palestinian state, and accepts the deployment of an international force to guard its borders. Netanyahu has refused to be pinned down on a framework for negotiations.
"There must be a strong Israeli strategic move that would deepen Palestinian trust in Israel's intentions, so we can move from indirect to direct talks," Aboul Gheit said. "Egypt thinks there is the need for direct talks, that they are the road to reach a settlement ... but to have these direct talks, the atmosphere must be ripe and enough progress made."
Cairo called for a more hands-on U.S. role with the two sides to lay the groundwork for direct negotiations. Aboul Gheit said this could include at least a general framework from Washington for the final settlement.
Egypt's top diplomat also said there is still more discussion and diplomacy in an effort to narrow the divide and build trust between the two sides.
"We are still hopeful that we can bridge that gap, the gap between the needs of security for Israel and the borders for the Palestinians," Aboul Gheit said. You have to create the basis to proceed from indirect to direct talks. That is still lacking. We need to help the Americans and both parties to come closer to each other."
He said Mubarak received a message Sunday from U.S. President Barack Obama and a telephone call from U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton urging a swift move to direct peace talks.
Aboul Gheit said he hoped that by September there would be enough progress to allow the Palestinians and Israel sit at the same negotiating table, if not sooner.
Prior to meeting with Mubarak, Netanyahu told a cabinet meeting in Jerusalem that "I intend to speak with President Mubarak about ways to accelerate the entry into direct negotiations between us and the Palestinians."
"I know that Egypt is interested in advancing the diplomatic process like we are, and I hope that in the wake of my meeting with U.S. President Barack Obama in Washington we will find ways to advance this common goal," he said.
Senior Egyptian officials, however, told Haaretz that Cairo was furious over Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman's call last week to sever all ties with the Gaza Strip.
Mubarak was expected to ask Netanyahu for clarifications on the matter and stress that Egypt will not accept any attempt to burden it with responsibility for Gaza.
In the meeting, Netanyahu was expected to ask Mubarak to pressure Abbas to agree to begin direct negotiations with Israel. He was expected to say that Israel will carry out a number of confidence-building measures to strengthen the PA if Abbas agrees to the talks.
Lieberman suggested last week that Israel shut down all border crossings with the Strip and allow movement in and out through the sea and the Rafah crossing on the Egyptian border. Israel would gradually disconnect Gaza from Israel's infrastructure, and the Gazans would receive a power station and water and sewage installation built by the European Union.
Senior Egyptian officials told Haaretz that Cairo adamantly opposed the move. They noted that a similar idea was voiced by Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz a few weeks ago, and that Lieberman's statements increased their concerns.
"We won't allow the responsibility for Gaza to be dumped on us," one official said. "You don't work like that and we are wondering about the timing of Lieberman's statement just before Netanyahu's meeting with President Mubarak."
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