Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak met Palestinian and Israeli leaders and the U.S. peace envoy with a return to direct talks on the agenda, but a breakthrough still seemed distant.
Egypt has long played a mediating role in Middle East politics, but it is unusual for Cairo to host different leaders on the same day. Shuttle diplomacy has been the preferred way of operating.
None of the visitors saw the others, instead having back-to-back talks with Mubarak, who was flanked by his foreign minister and top intelligence officer, Reuters reports.
U.S. envoy George Mitchell, who has shuttled between the main players since a four-month window for indirect talks was agreed in May, held an hour-long meeting, then hurriedly left the presidency without briefing reporters.
Minutes after Mitchell’s convoy of tinted-window white cars rolled out, a convoy of black cars rolled in, escorting Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, whom Mitchell met on Saturday in Ramallah.
Half an hour later Abbas was gone, again without speaking to reporters. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu arrived soon after Abbas’ departure.
The Egyptian state news agency MENA reported that Mubarak’s talks with all three men focused on “efforts to create the conditions necessary to advance the peace process and achieve a two-state solution”. It did not elaborate.
BRIDGING THE GAP
Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit told reporters after the meetings that direct talks were not possible yet, but there was still time.
“We are still hopeful that we can bridge this gap. The gap between the needs for security for Israel and the borders for the Palestinians,” he said.
“They (the Israelis) claim that they are determined to offer the Palestinians a good deal,” he said, adding that Egypt was encouraging the United States to keep pushing for face-to-face talks.
In a statement after the talks, Netanyahu said: “President Mubarak represents the aspiration for widening the cycle of peace and preserving the stability and security of the peoples of the region. I again found in him a key partner in achieving those important goals.”
Abbas told a Jordanian newspaper on Saturday Israel must agree to the idea of a third party, possibly NATO, which would secure the borders of a future Palestinian state, and set other conditions for a return to direct talks.
Netanyahu has not publicly responded.
Israel and the United States are both pushing for a speedy return to direct talks. The Palestinians say they have yet to receive a clear response from Israel on issues such as the size and shape of a future Palestinian state, security and Israeli settlement activities in the occupied West Bank.
Netanyahu in November ordered a partial freeze on Jewish settlements that will lapse in September.
The long-stalled indirect talks are about halfway through their agreed four-month duration.