SHARM EL-SHEIKH, Egypt (AP) – Overshadowed by an Israeli raid into the Palestinian territories, a summit between the leaders of Israel and Egypt achieved little in reviving the long-stalled Mideast peace process, highlighting instead the disagreements between Israel and its Arab neighbors.
The summit Thursday came amid international calls for Israel and the Palestinians to make a renewed effort to end their dispute in the interest of stabilizing the Middle East, in general, and Iraq, in particular. It also comes ahead of an expected Mideast visit by U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice later this month.
Speaking during a frosty news conference after meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, Egypt’s President Hosni Mubarak condemned the Israeli raid, pushed Israel to hold talks with Syria and urged it to pursue peace with the Palestinians despite the rise of the Hamas militant group.
Mubarak, a key mediator between the Palestinians and Israel, strongly condemned the raid in the city of Ramallah hours earlier that killed four Palestinian civilians and wounded 20 others.
The Egyptian president said he voiced his “displeasure” to Olmert for what had just happened and stressed that “Israel’s and the region’s security would be achieved only by serious endeavors toward peace.”
Olmert apologized for civilian casualties from the raid. “Things developed in a way that could not have been predicted in advance, if innocent people were hurt, this was not our intention,” he said.
A senior Israeli official told reporters on Olmert’s plane home that “the Ramallah incident cast a shadow,” over the meeting with Mubarak. “But all in all, the talks were held in a good atmosphere,” said the official, speaking on condition of anonymity because the talks were private.
Egypt is eager to broker peace between the Palestinians and Israel, and Mubarak said he would welcome a meeting bringing together himself, Olmert, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Jordan’s King Abdullah II.
Significant obstacles block the start of a new peace process, including the continued captivity of an Israeli soldier seized by Hamas-linked militants in June. Egypt has been trying to broker a deal for Cpl. Gilad Shalit’s release, and many in Israel waited, in vain, for a breakthrough at the summit Thursday.
Olmert thanked Mubarak for his efforts to secure Shalit’s freedom, and said Israel was ready to meet with Abbas, but he rejected having any dealings with Hamas, the Islamic militant group that controls the Palestinian Cabinet and calls for Israel’s destruction. “We are ready at any time to meet with Abu Mazen (Abbas) and have real negotiations and have an atmosphere for peace,” Olmert said, adding that Abbas was a “partner for peace,” while Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal was not.
Mubarak hosted Abbas at a summit here on Dec. 27, four days after Olmert met with the Palestinian president for talks to thaw relations between the two sides. The summit on Thursday was expected to build on these efforts but did not appear to achieve any major breakthroughs.
Mubarak called on Hamas and Abbas’ moderate Fatah party to reach a cease-fire so that Palestinians could negotiate a peace with Israel. “They must unite and solve their problems, and then we can see how to deal with the Israeli side so they can sit at the negotiating table and reach peace,” Mubarak said. “It is a tough task but (it) can’t be skipped,” Olmert expressed concerns to Mubarak about the ongoing smuggling of weapons and money from Egypt into the Gaza Strip. Israel and the West have imposed a financial embargo on the Hamas government, but top Hamas leaders have kept the government afloat by bringing suitcases packed with millions of dollars over the border.
Mubarak said he was doing his best to stop weapons smuggling into Gaza, but said the cash-filled suitcases were not illegal as long as they were declared. He also urged Israel to accept Syria’s offers to restart peace talks that broke down seven years ago. Olmert has rejected the offers, citing Syria’s support for Hamas and the Hezbollah guerrilla group in Lebanon.
Mubarak also expressed hopes for securing Shalit’s release soon. A Hamas official on Sunday claimed progress was made toward an agreement exchanging Shalit for some of the 9,100 Palestinians held in Israeli prisons. A senior Hamas official in Syria on Thursday said his group was ready to give Israel a video of Shalit if it agreed to release Palestinian women prisoners and other detainees.
Moussa Abu Marzouk, deputy head of Hamas’ political bureau in Damascus, said in a telephone interview that Shalit is alive.