TEL AVIV // Benjamin Netanyahu will meet Hosni Mubarak, the Egyptian president today, for the first time since being re-elected Israel's prime minister amid differences between the two countries on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and tensions stirred by Israel's ultranationalist foreign minister. The Israeli leader will meet Mr Mubarak in the Red Sea resort of Sharm el Sheikh. The trip marks Mr Netanyahu's first official visit abroad since being sworn in on March 31, and comes just a week before he holds a key meeting with Barack Obama, the US president, in Washington.
For Mr Netanyahu, who may also meet King Abdullah II of Jordan this week, the discussions with both Arab leaders are a chance to garner Mideast support for halting Iran's nuclear ambition, which Mr Netanyahu insists poses the greatest threat to the region's stability. However, the hawkish approach of Mr Netanyahu's new government to Palestinian statehood may become a point of contention in the talks with the heads of the only two Arab countries with which Israel is at peace.
That is mainly because most members of the Israeli governing coalition oppose the creation of a Palestinian state. Mr Netanyahu himself has carefully avoided voicing support for Palestinian statehood since being re-elected prime minister, and is believed to back Palestinian autonomy with limitations, including barring them from forming an army or controlling borders. But both Egypt and Jordan have urged Mr Netanyahu to endorse the two-state solution.
Last week, Ahmed Aboul Gheit, the Egyptian foreign minister, was quoted by news agencies as saying: "It is important for the Israeli prime minister to express in a clear manner his acceptance of the principle of a two-state solution and the vital necessity of the creation of an independent Palestinian state." King Abdullah, during a visit to the United States last month where he met Mr Obama, warned that postponing Palestinian statehood would be disastrous for both Israelis and Palestinians. He said: "Israel now has to make its choice - to integrate into the region ? with normal relations with its neighbours, or to remain fortress Israel."
The statement by King Abdullah hinted of the current efforts by the Obama administration to bring together Israel and Arab countries - also including Lebanon and Syria, which Israel considers as enemies - in a coalition against Iran's nuclear programme. Those efforts are expected to be part of discussions between Mr Netanyahu in his meeting with Mr Mubarak and King Abdullah this week. News agencies cited Arab officials last week as saying that the United States had asked the 22-member Arab League to make changes to the 2002 Arab peace initiative that would make the plan easier for Israel to accept.
The plan was proposed by Saudi Arabia in 2002 and offers Israel normalised ties with Arab countries in return for the country's withdrawal from Arab land it occupied during the 1967 war. However, successive Israeli governments have either ignored or rejected the offer, and Mr Netanyahu is not expected to endorse it, especially because it would require the evacuation of hundreds of thousands of Jews from the Israeli-occupied West Bank, territory the Palestinians want as part of their future state.
Yesterday, Israel's Haaretz newspaper voiced support for the Arab initiative. In an editorial, it urged Mr Netanyahu to present during his meetings with Mr Mubarak and Mr Obama a "vision of peaceful coexistence" between Israel and Arab states that would include Palestinian statehood. The newspaper added: "Without such a vision ? Netanyahu will trap Israel into a harmful and bitter collision course with the Obama administration and with the Egyptian regime."
The newspaper said that a first step towards a two-state solution should be a halt to the expansion of Jewish settlements. Still, Mr Netanyahu has given no signs that he plans to halt such construction. Indeed, yesterday he was quoted in the Israeli press as telling local journalists: "When I encounter demands to completely freeze the building in settlements, I always ask - what should the children of settlers do?
"Live on the roof or below the ground?" The Israeli-Palestinian peace track is not the only issue that could possible cloud the talks today between Mr Netanyahu and Mr Mubarak. Egyptians have also been infuriated by comments made by Avigdor Lieberman, Israel's new foreign minister, including his telling Mr Mubarak last year to "go to hell" if he does not want to visit Israel. Israeli officials have said that Mr Lieberman is not scheduled to accompany Mr Netanyahu on his visit to Egypt.
The Israeli and Egyptian leaders may also discuss today a possible ceasefire agreement in the Gaza Strip, more than three months after Israel's onslaught in the territory. Efforts by Cairo to broker a long-term truce have so far proven unsuccessful. @Email:firstname.lastname@example.org