- Associated Press - Sunday, July 18, 2010

CAIRO (AP) — Pressure intensified on Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to agree to direct talks with Israel as Egypt held separate back-to-back meetings with the two sides Sunday in search of a compromise.

Mr. Abbas says he won’t negotiate directly with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu unless Israel agrees to recognize its 1967 frontier as a basis for the borders of a future Palestinian state and accepts the deployment of an international force to guard them. Mr. Netanyahu has refused to be pinned down on a framework for negotiations.

In an effort to sound out the prospects for a move to direct talks, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak met with Mr. Abbas, Mr. Netanyahu and U.S. Mideast envoy George Mitchell separately Sunday in Cairo.

Egypt has friendly ties with both Israel and Mr. Abbas‘ Palestinian Authority, and Cairo — like Washington — is pushing to narrow the divide between the two sides and coax them back to the negotiating table.

None of the leaders nor the U.S. envoy spoke after the meetings, but Egypt’s foreign minister, Ahmed Aboul Gheit, told reporters there is still work to be done to get the Palestinians to move to direct talks.

“There must be a strong Israeli strategic move that would deepen Palestinian trust in Israel’s intentions so we can move from indirect to direct talks,” Mr. Aboul Gheit said. “Egypt thinks there is the need for direct talks, that they are the road to reach a settlement … but to have these direct talks, the atmosphere must be ripe and enough progress made.”

Cairo called for a more hands-on U.S. role with the two sides to lay the groundwork for direct negotiations. Mr. Aboul Gheit said this could include at least a general framework from Washington for the final settlement.

Egypt’s top diplomat also said there is still more discussion and diplomacy in an effort to narrow the divide and build trust between the two sides.

“We are still hopeful that we can bridge that gap, the gap between the needs of security for Israel and the borders for the Palestinians,” Mr. Aboul Gheit said. “You have to create the basis to proceed from indirect to direct talks. That is still lacking. We need to help the Americans and both parties to come closer to each other.”

He said Mr. Mubarak received a message Sunday from President Obama and a telephone call from Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton urging a swift move to direct peace talks.

Mr. Aboul Gheit said he hoped that by September there would be enough progress to allow the Palestinians and Israel sit at the same negotiating table, if not sooner.

The four months set aside for Mr. Mitchell’s shuttle diplomacy and Israel’s partial curb on settlement construction will have come to an end by September.

Israeli defense officials have said that Israel is considering expanding the role of Palestinian security forces in West Bank towns and removing additional checkpoints that hinder the movement of people and goods. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because no final decision had been made.

When asked about these steps and whether they constitute trust-building, Mr. Aboul Gheit said they “address certain problems.”

“But I think we have to focus on (freezing) settlement activity, a time frame and the 1967 lines,” he said, referring to the borders prior to the 1967 Mideast war.

Mr. Abbas is unlikely to enter direct talks without explicit backing from Arab states, whose support he received before engaging in indirect negotiations. Arab foreign ministers are to discuss the fate of those talks later this month.

Mr. Netanyahu, who met earlier Sunday with Mr. Mitchell in Jerusalem, told Israel’s Cabinet that he would discuss with Mr. Mubarak ways to resume direct talks with the Palestinians. The two leaders’ meeting in Cairo lasted nearly two hours.

Mr. Netanyahu also will meet late Sunday with EU foreign affairs chief Catherine Ashton upon his return to Jerusalem.

Earlier in the day, Ms. Ashton visited the blockaded Gaza Strip to gauge the impact of Israel’s easing of its embargo on the Hamas-ruled territory.

She called on the Israel to go beyond easing its embargo and throw open Gaza’s borders.

“We want to see the opportunity for people to be able to move around freely, to see goods not only coming in to Gaza but exports coming out of Gaza,” Ms. Ashton said.

Israel continues to ban virtually all exports from Gaza and restricts the import of badly needed construction supplies and raw materials for industry. And along with Egypt, it prevents most Gazans from traveling.

Israel, citing security concerns, has signaled that it is not willing to completely open border crossings.

Associated Press writers Karin Laub and Ibrahim Barzak contributed to this report from Gaza City, Gaza Strip.

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