- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak left an Oval Office meeting with President Obama on Tuesday claiming that the U.S. administration has committed to presenting a comprehensive blueprint for Middle East peace talks next month - a characterization the White House disputed.

Mr. Mubarak’s first trip to the United States in six years focused on the effort to restart talks between the Israelis and Palestinians. But the visit by Mr. Mubarak, 81, also raised questions from critics about whether the White House has abandoned attempts begun by the George W. Bush administration to challenge the aging leader on human rights and democratic governance inside his country.

Mr. Mubarak pressed before the meeting for the United States to endorse a comprehensive peace plan, but Mr. Obama was much more cautious. “There has been movement in the right direction,” he told reporters in the Oval Office, with Mr. Mubarak sitting to his right.

Former Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell, the president’s special envoy to the Arab-Israeli conflict, has been quietly pushing both Israel and Arab states to take simultaneous steps toward peace.

From the Israelis, the Obama administration has asked for a temporary freeze on all settlement construction, even construction that likely would remain within the final borders of a Jewish state.

In exchange, the administration is pressing Arab states, large and small, to open trade missions and offer some recognition of Israel. Only Egypt and Jordan have normal diplomatic relations with Israel; the rest of the Arab world does not formally recognize Israel as a sovereign entity.

Soliman Awaad, Mr. Mubarak’s official spokesman, said after the meeting that Mr. Obama had promised a plan as early as next month.

“President Obama said that hopefully after [meetings between American and Israeli officials next week] there will be a final blueprint to be declared in the course of next month, in September,” Mr. Awaad said.

He also called for the United States to take the helm in leading the peace process.

“We do not need more literature on the peace process, but we do need to move ahead. What is needed now is for Americans to declare a plan to achieve peace in the Middle East,” Mr. Awaad said.

One big question mark hanging over the U.S. peace proposal is what, if anything, Mr. Obama will ask of the Palestinian Authority.

The president has opted to continue a program started under Mr. Bush to train Palestinian security forces. He also has insisted that the Palestinian Authority end official incitement against Israel and do more to fight terrorism.

But the militant Hamas movement remains in control of Gaza, and for now the Obama administration has said it will not talk to the group until it recognizes Israel and renounces terrorism.

White House press secretary Robert Gibbs did not reject the idea that Mr. Obama’s trip to the United Nations next month could be a chance to push forward peace talks.

But, he added, “I do not know of any specific plan that the United States will present at that time.”

Administration officials privately knocked down the idea of a single U.S.-backed document that would serve as a fulcrum for peace talks, but at the same time said efforts at peace talks will continue to move forward next month.

On the ground in the Middle East, Israeli Housing Minister Ariel Atias said no new settlement construction has been authorized in the Palestinian territory of the West Bank since Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu took office five months ago.

Mr. Obama has called on Israel to stop all settlement construction in order for peace talks to move forward. But he and his aides labored Tuesday to show that they expect action and compromise also from the Palestinians and surrounding Arab countries such as Egypt.

“My hope is that we are going to see not just movement from the Israelis, but also from the Palestinians around issues of incitement and security, from Arab states that show their willingness to engage Israel,” Mr. Obama said.

Mr. Mubarak said only that he will not accept “a temporary solution” to the Palestinian dispute, expressing impatience at delay in talking about “final status” issues such as the fate of Jerusalem, Palestinian refugees and the borders of the Israeli state.

“It has been ongoing since 60 years,” Mr. Mubarak said at the White House. “The Arab people are fed up with the length [of time] that this issue has taken and the issue of the displaced people.”

But Mr. Awaad said Egypt and other Arab states are not willing to take “confidence-building measures” toward Israel unless the Jewish state’s settlement freeze includes the natural growth of established settlements.

“It’s like an egg-and-chicken situation: Who comes first?” the spokesman said.

One obstacle to a peace deal may be the relationship between Washington and Jerusalem. Mr. Obama’s relationship with Mr. Netanyahu is tenuous, and discontent with the Obama administration has built up within the Israeli government.

For his part, Mr. Mubarak’s hopes to play peacemaker face the same challenge that has blocked progress for the past few years: The Palestinians are badly divided between the more moderate U.S.-backed Fatah Party and Hamas.

As Mr. Obama and Mr. Mubarak met, about 50 Coptic Christians protested outside the White House against what they said is an escalation of violence and discrimination against the religious minority in Egypt.

Regional analysts also criticized the Obama administration for stepping back from attempts under the Bush administration to pressure Egypt toward greater democratization and human rights progress. The White House has not protested the arrests of Egyptian dissidents, and it has cut funding for democracy promotion and to civil society groups.

Analysts surmised that the Obama administration feels that Cairo’s cooperation on stopping Iran from gaining nuclear weapons and on uniting a fractured Palestinian movement are higher-priority items they should ask for in return for $1.5 billion in aid that goes annually to Cairo.

“In exchange for cooperation on key mutual interests - the peace process and the Iranian threat - Washington appears to have shelved longstanding concerns over internal Egyptian governance,” wrote David Schenker and J. Scott Carpenter, analysts for the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, a nonpartisan think tank that leans favorably toward Israeli concerns.

Mr. Gibbs took issue with the characterization.

“I would not agree with the premise that we have somehow swept under the rug … the notion of human rights or greater democracy in the world. Obviously, those are important foreign policy goals that are in the national interests of this country,” Mr. Gibbs said.

Mr. Mubarak, who has been in power for nearly three decades, said that he is moving toward greater openness and political freedoms in his country, but Mr. Awaad said that “moving too fast” in this direction “might result in giving control to radicals.”

Eli Lake contributed to this report.

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