- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 18, 2009

UPDATED:

WASHINGTON (AP) — President Barack Obama says he is encouraged by progress in U.S. efforts to bring Israel and the Palestinians back to the negotiating table and thanked his Egyptian counterpart for his help in working for a breakthrough.

The president was responding to a question about reports that Israel had stopped granting permission for new settlements in the West Bank, even though projects in progress were continuing.

Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak said, “we are moving in the right direction,” and that Arab states were ready to help if the Israelis and the Palestinians returned to peace talks.

After a serious falling out over Bush administration pressure on human rights and democracy in Egypt, Mubarak is back in the U.S. capital for the first time in more than five years. The relationship is far from healed, despite Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton having eased back on those touchy issues and Egypt showing greater willingness to help with the peace effort.

Adding to the delicacy of the talks are U.S. concerns about Egypt’s future under the aging and increasingly frail Mubarak, who is 81 and has ruled Egypt for 28 years. He leads a country with an exploding population, ravaged by widespread poverty and high unemployment. He is believed to be grooming his son Gamal as successor.

Mubarak had been a regular visitor to Washington during the Clinton administration. Then he stayed away to protest the U.S. invasion of Iraq and President George W. Bush’s intensified pressure to open the Egyptian political system and moderate its human rights policies.

White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said Monday that the Obama-Mubarak meeting should be seen as “continuing our outreach in the Middle East.”

Mubarak has kept a lid on Egypt’s explosive social and religious pressures through heavy repression of much of the political opposition in Egypt, especially the Islamic fundamentalist Muslim Brotherhood, the most organized group challenging his rule.

While Egypt and Israel made peace more than 30 years ago, their accord has never reached stated goals of a warm relationship that would overcome historic distrust between the Jewish state and the most populous Arab country.

And the hardline Netanyahu has shown little willingness to give ground, regardless of Mubarak’s moves against weapons and money smuggling through tunnels under Egypt’s border with Gaza, the Mediterranean strip of territory controlled by Hamas. Despite the crackdown, Mubarak has failed to persuade the radical Palestinian faction to moderate and reconcile with the mainstream Palestinian leadership in the West Bank.

Obama has sought to establish a dialogue with the Iranians on the nuclear issue, but he has set a September deadline for it to respond. A next U.S. step would center on efforts to enforce tougher U.N. sanctions aimed at punishing Iran economically and further isolating the Islamic regime, which claims it is developing the technology for nuclear generation of electricity, not a bomb.

Israel has spoken openly of a military attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities but is widely believed to have agreed to stand down to give the U.S. policy time to work.

Leading up to Tuesday’s meeting, Vice President Joe Biden spoke with Mubarak by telephone Monday morning. The vice president’s office said the men had a “good conversation” but would provide no details. Biden plans to join Tuesday’s expanded talks after Obama and Mubarak meet one on one.

Later Monday, Mubarak sat down with Clinton. State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said they discussed efforts to restart negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians.

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