CAIRO // Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, said yesterday the "time is ripe" for renewing peace negotiations with the Palestinians before meeting the Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak in Cairo today, during which he plans to raise the issue. "I hope we have reached the time to renew the peace process," the Israeli newspaper Haaretz quoted Mr Netanyahu as telling diplomats gathered at the foreign ministry in Jerusalem. "The time for excuses is over. Now is the time for action."
Mr Netanyahu announced his visit to Cairo on Sunday, during the first anniversary of the Israeli incursion into the Gaza Strip. He said he had requested the meeting with Mr Mubarak after talks that Egypt's intelligence chief, Omar Suleiman, held in Israel last week. "I intend to continue this important dialogue," Mr Netanyahu said. Ahmed Aboul Gheit, Egypt's foreign minister, told a press conference in Cairo on Sunday: "We need a will from the Israeli side to put things in perspective concerning settlement, ie, a Palestinian state, which is an Egyptian, Arab, Palestinian and international demand on all the territories occupied in 1967.
"Some tell us why do you listen to him [Mr Netanyahu], just close the door and let him do what he's doing," continued Mr Aboul Gheit. "This is the easiest path, but it would lead to the loss of the Palestinian territories which he [Mr Netanyahu] considers to be perfect for him, as it allows him to build on Palestinian territories, impose his will on them, which would result in the loss of the Palestinian issue in the midst of the blind struggle among the Palestinian factions."
Israeli-Palestinian negotiations have been suspended for the past year. The president, Mahmoud Abbas, has said talks could resume only if Israel halts all settlement construction on land it captured in the 1967 Arab-Israeli war. He has rejected as insufficient a limited moratorium on new building in West Bank settlements that Mr Netanyahu imposed last month. "I can tell you generally that Mr Netanyahu will discuss the Israeli Palestinian file with President Mubarak and how Egypt can provide better atmosphere in order to renew negotiations," Amira Aron, head of the Egypt department in the Israeli foreign ministry, said in an interview.
"Obviously, we're giving great importance to the role Egypt is playing," she added, saying that the two leaders will also discuss "security and military issues and what's going on in Gaza and at the border". The "Shalit topic will be on the table," added Mrs Aron, referring to Gilad Shalit seized by Hamas during a raid into the Gaza Strip. Egypt and Germany are mediating a prisoner swap between Israel and Hamas under which the Islamist group, in charge of the territory, would release Sgt Shalit and Israel would free about 1,000 of the 11,000 Palestinians in its jails.
Two Gaza-based Hamas leaders, Mahmoud al Zahar and Khalil al Hayya, are today expected to travel to Syria via Egypt where they planned to discuss with Damascus-based Hamas leaders Israel's response to a proposed swap, a Hamas spokesman said. Officials familiar with the negotiations said Israel has ruled out releasing a handful of Palestinian militants serving life sentences for orchestrating lethal attacks.
Israel, the officials said, was also intent on barring between 100 and 120 Palestinian prisoners from returning to the occupied West Bank and wants them to be sent to Gaza or abroad. "At this stage there is no deal and it is not clear to me whether there will be one," a source present at Sunday's cabinet meeting quoted Mr Netanyahu as saying. The Israeli prime minister last visited Egypt in September, meeting Mr Mubarak in his residence in Heliopolis, Cairo, where the Israeli leader pledged to pursue talks with the Palestinians.
This is the third meeting between the two leaders, as Mr Netanyahu visited Mr Mubarak at the Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh in May. Egypt, which in 1979 became the first Arab country to sign a peace deal with Israel, has been an active mediator trying to resolve the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians, and between the rival Palestinian factions Hamas and Fatah. Mr Mubarak visited Israel only once, to attend the funeral of Yitzhak Rabin, the Israeli prime minister assassinated in 1995.
Email:firstname.lastname@example.org * With additional reporting by Reuters