After meeting Mubarak, Obama sees progress on settlements issue
Obama, Mubarak to discuss initiative also to drop Palestinian right of return, says Al-Quds Al-Arabi.
U.S. President Barack Obama said on Tuesday he saw encouraging signs of a softening of Israel's resistance to his call for a freeze on settlement-building in the occupied West Bank.
Earlier on Tuesday, an Israeli government minister said no tenders had been issued for new housing projects in Israeli settlements since Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's right-leaning government took office five months ago. Netanyahu has rebuffed Obama's push for a complete freeze, creating the most serious rift in U.S.-Israeli relations in a decade.
"There has been movement in the right direction," Obama said when asked about the latest development after talks with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak at the White House.
The two leaders, meeting for the third time in as many months, talked about how to jump-start the stalled Middle East peace process, a top foreign policy priority for Obama.
It was Mubarak's first visit to the United States since 2004. He had stayed away after falling out with former President George W. Bush over the latter's focus on promoting democracy in the Middle East and criticism of human rights in Egypt.
Mubarak's visit comes as the Obama administration has been pushing moderate Arab states to take steps that could encourage Israel to freeze settlement building on Palestinian territory.
Mubarak, however, said Arab states would only take a more active role in supporting the peace process once Israelis and Palestinians began direct negotiations.
Mubarak said he has told Israelis that aiming for a temporary solution is unacceptable. "I told them forget about a temporary solution and forget about temporary borders," he said.
Mubarak said Tuesday "we cannot afford wasting more time because violence will increase," and promised to be "very, very strong" in his efforts and cooperation on both Palestinian and regional issues.
"We support the efforts of the United States to move towards finding a solution," said Mubarak through his interpreter.
Arab states have so far been cool to the idea of steps such as giving overflight rights to Israeli civilian aircraft and allowing Israel to open interest sections in foreign embassies in their capitals.
They have put the onus on Israel to revive the peace process, while Israel has said the Palestinians and Arab states must first do more to advance the peace process.
Suleiman Awad, a spokesman for Mubarak, said the two leaders discussed bilateral issues, and that the meeting was held in a warm and constructive atmosphere.
Awad said Obama and Mubarak agreed on the need to promote a peace plan that offers a vision for the future, and that time was of the essence.
He added that courage was needed from all parties in the region, including the Israelis, Palestinians, and the Arab states.
Awad said Mubarak emphasized Egypt's central role in preserving regional stability.
"If Egypt falls, many other countries in the Middle East will destabilize," Awad said.
Awad added that confidence-building steps, like the release of captive Israel Defense Forces soldier Gilad Shalit and jailed Fatah leader Marwan Barghouti, could help promote peace.
"We do hope not only for Marwan Barghouti to come out, but we were very close to releasing Corporal Shalit in exchange of the Palestinian prisoners," Awad said. "Mr. Barghouti is a prominent figure and we believe that he should be released. This could be part of the confidence-building measures between Israelis and the Palestinians."
The Egyptian Embassy said Mubarak's remarks indicating he would seek another term in office were mistranslated and that the 81-year-old leader, who has ruled Egypt for 28 years, had not made up his mind about another run for office.
"I have entered into the elections based on a platform that included reforms and therefore we have started to implement some of it and we still have two years to implement it," Mubarak said, volunteering that he and Obama had spoken about U.S. concerns about repression of political opposition in Egypt.
Mubarak looked robust despite earlier reports that he had become increasingly frail and was preparing his 46-year-old son, Gamal, as a successor.
Egypt has an exploding population, ravaged by widespread poverty and high unemployment. He has kept a lid on Egypt's burgeoning social and religious pressures through heavy repression of much of the political opposition in Egypt, especially the Islamic fundamentalist Muslim Brotherhood, the most organized group challenging his rule.
According to a report published in the London-based Al-Quds al-Arabi, Mubarak and Obama were due to discuss a new initiative which would see a demilitarized Palestinian state set within amended 1967 borders and Jerusalem as its shared capital with Israel.
The initiative, which was reportedly raised by past U.S. president Jimmy Carter, former secretary of state James Baker and former national security adviser Brent Scowcroft, would also have Palestinians concede on their demand for the right of return, in exchange for compensation.
Mubarak arrived in Washington on Monday for his first White House talks. He met with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton after arriving and is set to meet with Obama on Tuesday.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said a few months ago that he would endorse the concept of a Palestinian state, so long as it were demilitarized.
While the suggestion initially raised criticism board, Netanyahu said in June that he could see it gaining international ground and was the only feasible solution for Middle East peace.
"The idea of a demilitarized state will in course become accepted," Netanyahu said after meeting the leaders of France and Italy.