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Israel and Egypt eye movement on peace process

Israel Prime Minister Netanyahu and Egypt President Mubarak met in Cairo and discussed the Israeli-Palestinian peace process ahead of a visit by US envoy George Mitchell. The two leaders also discussed captured Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit.

By Ilene R. PrusherStaff writer, Liam StackCorrespondent / December 29, 2009

Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak (right) speaks with Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the Presidential Palace in Cairo, Tuesday.

Tarek Mostafa/Reuters

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Jerusalem; and Cairo

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu met in Cairo Tuesday with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in talks aimed at bringing Egyptian pressure on the Palestinians ahead of a flurry of diplomatic activity expected next week, including a visit from US Middle East envoy George Mitchell.

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The Israelis appear to be seeking more movement toward peace talks on the part of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, given what Mr. Netanyahu says are unprecedented moves toward peace by halting settlement construction in the West Bank. The 10-month freeze does not include East Jerusalem, where Israeli officials said yesterday they would build another 700 housing units, raising ire among Palestinians and summoning criticism from the Obama administration.

The Palestinian Authority under Mr. Abbas has said it will not return to peace talks unless Israel has a full settlement freeze, including not just the West Bank, but East Jerusalem as well.

Mr. Mitchell, on his visit, is expected to present a new draft for resuming peace talks. Netanyahu was quoted in Tuesday's Yedioth Ahronoth as saying that his government had taken "courageous steps for the sake of peace that no other government has taken, but the Palestinians have imposed difficulties and preconditions and have climbed a high tree." He added, according to the interview: "The time for excuses is over, and the time for action has arrived.”

The comments seem to reflect an outlook that Netanyahu is trying to portray to the world: that he has done everything in his power so far to bring about a new era in peace talks, and that it's time for the Palestinian leadership to come forward with bold moves as well.

"Everyone wants to make sure it looks like the ball is in the other guy's court," says Mark Heller, an analyst on the Middle East conflict at the Institute for National Security Studies at Tel Aviv University. In that way, he says, Netanyahu will be able to tell Barack Obama, who has made the peace process a foreign policy priority, that he's made as many overtures as he can without endangering the stability of his own government.

Gilad Shalit's status discussed

The talks, which Netanyahu's office characterized as held in a "friendly atmosphere" and "thorough," also focused on a long-anticipated prisoner exchange deal between Israel and Hamas. Israel is expected to exchange between 900 and 1,000 Palestinian prisoners for its captive soldier, Sgt. Gilad Shalit, held in Gaza since mid-2006. Though the talks have been taking place through a German mediator, Egypt has also played a role and is expected to be the exchange point for Mr. Shalit, if and when he is released.

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