WASHINGTON (AFP) – US President Barack Obama was bidding Tuesday to breathe new life into his Middle East peace push, looking to Egyptian leader Hosni Mubarak help break a deadlock between Israel and Arab states.
It will mark the longtime US ally’s first White House summit in five years, turning a page on a tense relationship with former president George W. Bush who pushed him to release political prisoners and hold free elections.
Obama has been pushing Israel’s right-leaning government hard to freeze Jewish settlements but has also called on Arab nations to take symbolic gestures to encourage the Jewish state to move forward.
But Obama has had little to show, with Israel going ahead with evictions of Palestinian families from a sensitive area of east Jerusalem and Arab states, including Egypt, saying Israel must take action before they do.
Robert Gibbs, the White House press secretary, said that Obama will “take some time” with Mubarak to reach out.
“I think obviously each country in the region on either side of this issue has certain responsibilities to uphold as we make progress toward a lasting peace in the Middle East,” Gibbs told reporters Monday.
“And without a recognition of those responsibilities it’s going to be hard to move forward,” Gibbs said on Air Force One as the president returned from a working holiday in the western United States.
Obama has shown new deference to the octogenarian Egyptian leader, with his administration saying it wanted to consult with him before launching any major new initiative in the Middle East.
In remarks published Monday, Mubarak said he told Obama in June — when the US leader chose Cairo as the backdrop for a landmark speech extending a hand to the Islamic world — that Israel must freeze settlements.
“I explained to President Obama in Cairo that the Arab initiative offers the recognition of Israel and normalization of ties with it after, and not before, a just and lasting peace is achieved,” Mubarak told the state-controlled Al-Ahram newspaper.
The Arab League in 2002 endorsed a plan calling for Arab states to recognize Israel in exchange for Israel’s withdrawal from the land it occupied in war in 1967 and an equitable resolution for Palestinian refugees.
Only two Arab countries, Egypt and Jordan, have signed peace treaties with the Jewish state while some other Arab countries have trade relations.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton discussed the peace process with Mubarak on Monday along with developments on Iran, which both nations fear is building nuclear weapons.
State Department spokesman Philip Crowley voiced confidence that Clinton and Mubarak agreed on the need for “gestures that move towards normalization” as both Israel and the Palestinians take peace steps.
He said Clinton also raised human rights with Mubarak.
“It is something that we raise in every high-level meeting that we have,” Crowley told reporters. “We would like to see Egypt embark on a path to expand political dialogue.”
Leading Egyptian dissident Ayman Nur, who spent three years in prison after challenging Mubarak in the 2005 presidential election, earlier voiced fear that Obama would set back efforts to promote reform in Egypt.
“It betrays American values,” Nur told AFP in Cairo.
Mubarak also met Monday with some 20 Jewish leaders in a meeting that Martin Raffel, senior vice president of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, described as “very friendly.”
But he said the Jewish leaders also pressed Mubarak to find ways to reassure the Israeli public “that the Arab world is serious about trying to achieve peace with Israel.”
“If you’re asking Israel to make hard decisions,” Raffel told AFP, “the Israeli people have to begin to feel that there is a positive change happening with the broader Arab world beyond Egypt and Jordan.”