Mubarak to meet with Olmert

OCCUPIED JERUSALEM (AP) — Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert was scheduled to meet today with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, a key regional mediator, as part of efforts to restart Mideast peace talks and free a captured Israeli soldier, but Israeli officials said they did not expect a breakthrough on the prisoner issue.

The Red Sea summit comes amid international calls for Israel and the Palestinians to make a renewed effort to end their dispute, in the interest of stabilising the Middle East in general and Iraq in particular.

Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Abul Gheit said Friday the summit is aimed at probing ways to revive peace talks, stalled for more than six years since the outbreak of the current Palestinian uprising in September 2000.

Fighters linked to Hamas captured Cpl. Gilad Shalit in June, and a Hamas official on Sunday claimed progress towards an agreement for his release, in exchange for Israel freeing some of the 9,100 Palestinians in its prisons.

A Palestinian prisoner release would bolster the domestic standing of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in his efforts to build a more pragmatic coalition with the governing Hamas, while Israel says freeing the soldier is key to reviving peace talks with the Palestinians.

Egypt has been mediating efforts to end the standoff since Shalit was captured, and it brokered a shaky       November 26 truce under which Hamas has virtually halted firing rockets at Israel.

The Israelis and Palestinians each hope for some movement on the prisoner issue Thursday but warn that it is not a done deal.

“Gilad Shalit is not going to be freed tomorrow, there is not going to be a dramatic announcement,” Olmert spokeswoman Miri Eisin told the Associated Press on Wednesday. “It will be discussed, but unfortunately we’re not at that point yet.” Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat, who is close to Abbas, agreed.

“To speak of an agreement, at this stage, is premature,” he said.

Olmert and Mubarak last met on June 4, 2006, also in Sharm El Sheikh. Mubarak hosted Abbas in the Red Sea town on December 27, 2006, where the Palestinian president proposed closed-door talks with Israel on some of the thorniest issues dividing them, including the status of Jerusalem and Palestinian refugees.

Israeli and Egyptian officials said that among items to be discussed at the hour-long summit Thursday evening and over the dinner to follow will include Abbas’ coalition-building efforts, bilateral Israel-Egyptian ties and the prospect of joint economic projects. There will also be talk on the broader Middle East, including Iran’s nuclear ambitions.

A bipartisan US panel on Iraq headed by former secretary of state James A. Baker III has said progress on the Israeli-Palestinian dispute could help ease tensions in Iraq and British Prime Minister Tony Blair says a resolution to the conflict is key to Middle East stability.

Israel disputes that conclusion.

Olmert met Abbas last month in the first Israeli-Palestinian summit since June 2005, when then-prime minister Ariel Sharon met the Palestinian leader.

A state-run Egyptian newspaper Wednesday quoted Mubarak spokesman Suleiman Awad as saying that Olmert’s visit to Mubarak would be followed at an unspecified date by another Olmert-Abbas meeting, in Sharm El Sheikh. 

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