- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 30, 2009

CAIRO | Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Tuesday presented Egypt with ideas for restarting Mideast peace talks, impressing his hosts with proposals that go further than past Israeli positions, Egypt’s top diplomat said.

The meeting took place as a Hamas official said his group had rejected Israel’s latest proposal for a prisoner swap with the Islamic militants. A top Hamas official in Syria said the deal is on hold because Israel was refusing to release key prisoners and insisting on mass deportations of freed militants.

The peace process and prisoner swaps were high on Mr. Netanyahu’s agenda Tuesday. Egypt, the first Arab country to make peace with Israel, has been a key mediator on both fronts. Germany, at Hamas’ behest, is also involved in the mediation.

Israeli-Palestinian talks broke off a year ago, and the two sides are at odds on how to restart negotiations. The issue of Israeli settlements in areas claimed by the Palestinians has been a major sticking point, and Israel’s offer of a partial settlement freeze has failed to break the deadlock. Israel committed to a full settlement freeze under a 2003 peace plan, but never met that obligation.

Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit refused to divulge specifics on Tuesday’s discussions, but said Mr. Netanyahu appears serious about trying to resume negotiations with the Palestinians.

“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,” Mr. Aboul Gheit told reporters. “I can’t say that he has come with changed positions, but he is moving forward.”

After returning home, Mr. Netanyahu told a gathering of his Likud Party that he is “very encouraged by the commitment of President [Hosni] Mubarak to promote the peace process between us and the Palestinians.”

“I expect and hope to see such a readiness from the Palestinian Authority,” he said. “It is time to move the peace process forward.”

Mr. Netanyahu jetted in from neighboring Israel, joined by his top negotiator, Yitzhak Molcho, for nearly three hours of talks with Mr. Mubarak; his intelligence chief, Omar Suleiman; and Mr. Aboul Gheit.

Egypt frequently mediates between the Jewish state and the broader Arab world. Mr. Aboul Gheit and Mr. Suleiman are traveling to the United States next week, while U.S. envoy George J. Mitchell is expected in Israel around the same time.

For months, Mr. Mitchell, a former Democratic senator from Maine, has been trying to bring Israel and the Palestinians back to the negotiating table. In the latest setback for peace efforts, Israel announced plans on Monday to build nearly 700 new homes in East Jerusalem, the section of the holy city that the Palestinians want to make their capital.

Mr. Netanyahu has offered a 10-month slowdown on West Bank settlement construction in what he says is a gesture to restart talks. But the Palestinians say the gesture is insufficient because it does not include East Jerusalem, their hoped-for capital, or 3,000 homes already being built in the West Bank.

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