Netanyahu Heads to Egypt to Meet Mubarak on Mideast Talks

Mubarak is expected to stress to Netanyahu that Egypt will not accept any attempt to burden it with responsibility for Gaza.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu leaves for Egypt on Sunday to discuss with President Hosni Mubarak the possibility of launching direct negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas is also due to meet with Mubarak in Cairo.

Senior Egyptian officials, however, told Haaretz about the anger in Cairo over Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman's call last week to sever all ties with the Gaza Strip. Mubarak is 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, expected to last four hours, Netanyahu will ask Mubarak to pressure Abbas to agree to begin direct negotiations with Israel. He is expected to say that Israel will carry out a number of confidence-building measures to strengthen the PA if Abbas agrees to the talks.

However, the tete-a-tete is expected to be overshadowed by Lieberman's statements.

Lieberman suggested 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.

By the end of the process, the responsibility for Gaza would be shifted onto Egypt and the international community. Lieberman made these comments around two weeks ago, but they garnered fresh attention in the Israeli media late last week.

Although Lieberman said last week the plan was handed to him by the Foreign Ministry, a Haaretz inquiry found the opposite to be the case. Foreign Ministry director-general Yossi Gal and other officials working on the Gaza issue say they are not aware of any such documents.

Sources close to the prime minister also expressed surprise. No plans to that effect have reached Netanyahu's desk, and no such position paper was known to the National Security Council, the sources said. Netanyahu is expected to tell Mubarak that Lieberman's plan on Gaza was made without his knowledge.

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."

Before leaving for Egypt, Netanyahu is expected to meet special U.S. envoy George Mitchell. On Friday, Netanyahu handed to Mitchell the list of steps he would be wiling to take if Abbas agreed to move to direct talks.

Mitchell met with Abbas over the weekend; Abbas told him that unless progress is made in the proximity talks on issues of borders and security, the PA will not move to direct talks. Palestinian sources told Haaretz that Netanyahu wouldn't so much as comment on these issues in the proximity talks.

Abbas himself told Jordanian newspaper Alghad on Saturday that to move to direct talks, Israel would have to agree for a third party to secure the borders of the future Palestinian state, and to land swaps to compensate the Palestinians for settlement blocs retained by Israel.

Meanwhile, the European Union's top representative for foreign affairs and security policy, Baroness Catherine Ashton, arrived in Israel on Saturday. She is to visit the Gaza Strip on Monday and meet with Netanyahu and Lieberman in Jerusalem.