x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 January 2018

Netanyahu 'positive' over peace talk plans

Benyamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, yesterday met the Egyptian president to discuss new proposals for Middle East peace.

Hedy Epstein, 85, left, a US activist and Holocaust survivor, protests over Egypt's blockade of Gaza in Cairo yesterday.
Hedy Epstein, 85, left, a US activist and Holocaust survivor, protests over Egypt's blockade of Gaza in Cairo yesterday.

CAIRO // Benyamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, yesterday met the Egyptian president to discuss new proposals for Middle East peace in a meeting described as "very positive" by Egypt's foreign minister. "I can't talk about details, but the prime minister was discussing positions that surpass in our estimate what we've heard from them in a long time," Ahmed Aboul Gheit, the foreign minister, said after the two-and-a-half hour summit over lunch at Hosni Mubarak's presidential palace in Heliopolis.

"It's difficult to say that a [peace] settlement [will come] soon. I can't say that Netanyahu has come with changed positions, but we saw a desire and persistence on moving forward ... and we tell him, this is not enough, you have to move more. "The meeting was very positive, we listened to a lot of details about the point of view of the Israeli prime minister, and at the same time President Mubarak responded with his views, mainly about pushing for settlement efforts between the Israelis and the Palestinians," Mr Aboul Gheit said.

However, the talks were overshadowed by Israel's announcement on Monday that it will build about 700 new homes in East Jerusalem, the section of the holy city that the Palestinians want to make their capital. "Egypt's clear stance is that you are building on Arab lands," said Mr Aboul Gheit at the press conference. The continued settlement construction by Israel in the occupied territories was "torpedoing the efforts being made to relaunch negotiations aimed at establishing a Palestinian state," Mr Aboul Gheit said in a statement carried earlier by Egypt's official Mena news agency.

"Such behaviour raises questions about the serious willingness of Israel to reach a definitive agreement and leads one to believe that Israel is trying to welch on its obligations for a just and lasting peace," he said. Mr Netanyahu came at a difficult time in the faltering peace process as the US tries to prod Israel and the Palestinians back to the negotiating table. The Palestinians have said they will not reopen negotiations until Israel freezes all settlement activity on lands they claim for a future independent state. Israel has offered a partial freeze that the Palestinians say is insufficient.

Mr Aboul Gheit said he, along with the Egyptian intelligence chief, Omar Suleiman, will meet several US officials in Washington on January 8 to further push the peace efforts. The foreign minister also said that Mr Mubarak told Mr Netanyahu that Israel must ease its blockade of the Gaza Strip and that "Egypt can't agree on this level of siege and suffering of the Palestinians." Egypt is underfire for reinforcing the almost four-year siege by closing the Rafah border with Gaza and recently for starting to construct a steel wall along its border with the impoverished territory that extends underground to prevent smugglers from digging tunnels to Egypt.

Yesterday also witnessed protests against the ongoing blockade, with about 500 people demonstrating outside of the French embassy while around 200 protested outside of the press syndicate. No clashes with police were reported. Mr Aboul Gheit sought to defend Egypt against growing anger in the region at its perceived alliance with Israel against Gaza. He accused international aid convoys who were not allowed into Gaza of "lying" and "having ulterior motives to harm the state and the Egyptian people, which is an accusation that I state clearly.

"There is a ready plan with the help of satellites and radio against Egypt," continued Mr Aboul Gheit. "Egypt is the most honourable force that stands by the Palestinians, we sacrificed our lives and maybe our future, in defending this [Palestinian] issue," he added angrily. "There is no wall, walls are above the ground," said Mr Aboul Gheit regarding the wall being built between Egypt and Gaza. "We are installing construction under our ground, and we don't reveal these issues because they are to do with Egypt's defence against those who want to harm it, and they're many."

He emphasised that future negotiations should have a clear basis and goals, and that the international community should not leave the Israelis to impose their will on the Palestinians. He also said there is no talk or intention to change the Arab peace initiative that was launched by Saudi Arabia during the Arab Summit in 2002 and was later adopted by the rest of the Arab League countries. The other central issue under discussion in the meeting was the deal to release the Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit in exchange for about 1,000 Palestinian prisoners.

Mr Aboul Gheit said the deal is still hanging adding they were "waiting to hear back from the Hamas delegation," which went to Damascus to consult with the political leadership there. "The deal shouldn't be allowed to be hindered," he said, adding that Egypt is against deporting any of the released Palestinians outside their homeland, which Israel has proposed. A top Hamas official in Damascus told the Associated Press that the group had rejected the latest proposal from Israel announced on Tuesday. He said Israel was refusing to release key prisoners and insisting on mass deportations of freed militants.

The official, speaking on condition of anonymity pending a formal announcement, said that Israel is refusing to release 10 senior Hamas militants. He said Israel also wants 200 freed militants to be deported. Hamas wants this number greatly reduced. Israeli officials declined to comment on this issue or on Mr Netanyahu's visit to Egypt. @Email:nmagd@thenational.ae * With additional reporting by the Associated Press