WASHINGTON - U.S. President Barack Obama has promised Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak that he will present a rough draft of his Middle East peace plan in September, a Mubarak spokesman said following their White House meeting Tuesday.
Suleiman Awad said the two presidents had agreed that time was of the essence in forging an Israeli-Palestinian deal, and a detailed plan with a clear vision of how a final agreement would look was necessary.
At a press conference following the meeting, Obama flattered his visitor, calling him a "leader," "counselor" and friend," and said the two are working together to try to bring peace to the region. Mubarak returned the praise, saying Obama had "removed all doubts" the Muslim world had previously entertained about the United States.
Obama also said he saw "movement in the right direction" from Israel on the issue of a settlement freeze - something Washington and Jerusalem have been arguing about for months. He made the comment in response to a question about reports that Israel had stopped granting permission for new settlement construction in the West Bank, though projects in progress are continuing.
"The Israeli government has taken discussions with us very seriously," Obama said, adding that he was "encouraged by some of the things I'm seeing on the ground."
Obama added, however, that he hopes to see "not just movement from the Israelis, but also from the Palestinians around issues of incitement and security, from Arab states that show their willingness to engage Israel."
A day earlier, a State Department spokesman had similarly said that an Israeli gesture on settlements ought to be met with reciprocal Arab gestures toward normalization. However, Mubarak rejected this idea Tuesday, as he has many times in the past.
According to Awad, Mubarak told Obama that the Arab world tried confidence-building measures when the Oslo accords were first signed, in the 1990s, but "it all came to an end" when Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was elected for the first time, in 1996. Now, he said, the Arabs are unwilling to make further gestures until Israel does something that they believe merits such reciprocity - and a temporary settlement freeze is not enough.
One Israeli gesture Awad said Egypt would like to see is the release of Marwan Barghouti, a leading member of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas' Fatah faction who is currently serving five life terms in Israel for murder. Because Barghouti is a popular and prominent Palestinian politician, Awad said, this would be a good confidence-building measure.
Egypt has also pushed for Barghouti's release as part as part of a deal between Israel and Hamas to secure the release of kidnapped soldier Gilad Shalit, Awad added. Cairo is the chief mediator in the ongoing talks on this issue.
Until 2005, Mubarak visited Washington every year. But due to his dislike of Obama's predecessor, George W. Bush - and especially Bush's efforts to promote democracy in Egypt - he has avoided the U.S. capital for the last four years.
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