Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will depart this morning for Washington for preliminary negotiations ahead of tomorrow's diplomatic summit at the White House.
The Israeli delegation is headed by Isaac Molho, an attorney and Netanyahu adviser, and the Palestinian team by veteran negotiator Saeb Erekat. Both negotiators will arrive in the U.S. capital ahead of the leaders they represent.
Joining Netanyahu on the trip are officials with the Foreign Ministry and the Prime Minister's Office information directorate. The PMO announced yesterday that the composition of the Israeli delegation had yet to be finalized, and the prime minister hopes to include at least one woman on his negotiating team.
Both the Palestinian team and their American hosts originally suggested holding a trilateral summit between the heads of the respective negotiating teams, but Netanyahu turned down the offer. "The prime minister wanted the first meeting between the two sides to be between leaders, and not to take place at a lower level," said one high-ranking Israeli official.
Netanyahu was reportedly concerned that the Palestinian team, along with U.S. officials, would try to pressure him into making far-ranging concessions such as extending the freeze on West Bank settlement construction. The freeze expires on September 26.
The summit timetable has yet to be set definitively. It is possible that as early as the day after landing in Washington, Netanyahu will meet with U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and possibly with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and Jordan's King Abdullah as well.
Tomorrow morning (Washington time ) Netanyahu will meet with U.S. President Barack Obama. In the evening he will attend an official dinner with Obama, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, Mubarak and King Abdullah.
On Thursday, Clinton and U.S. Mideast envoy George Mitchell will lead a ceremony, with Israeli and Palestinian participation, to inaugurate direct talks. Netanyahu and Abbas will both deliver brief remarks, followed by a short initial negotiating session. The first session will focus on setting a date for a second round of talks, and determining the items to be included on the agenda.
Social Affairs Minister Isaac Herzog visited Jordan yesterday and met with Prime Minister Samir Rifai. It was the third meeting over the past few weeks between Israeli and Jordanian ministers, as relations between the neighboring countries have improved perceptibly ahead of the Washington summit.
Rifai told Herzog that Israel must do all it can to ensure that the direct talks succeed. "For that to happen, you need to continue the freeze on settlement building," he said.
Herzog assured his guest that Netanyahu is serious about making peace. "The majority of Israelis are ready to sign a peace agreement with the Palestinians, even with painful concessions, as long as they know they will be getting security in return," he said.
Mubarak is expected to travel to Washington with his son Gamal. This is an unusual step for the Egyptian leader, and has already reinforced widespread speculation that the veteran president is grooming his youngest son as his successor.
The 82-year-old head of state has thus far refrained from taking his son on diplomatic trips, and this week's summit will be the younger Mubarak's first known encounter with an Israeli delegation, and with Netanyahu himself.
Clinton is scheduled to meet today with Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit and intelligence chief Omar Suleiman.
Ahead of the long-awaited summit, U.S. State Department spokesman Philip Crowley yesterday struck an optimistic note. "We expect to address core issues and see if we can't find a formula to reach an agreement that ends this conflict, once and for all," he said.
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