New hope for Middle East peace?

Egyptian president set to push US counterpart to press Israel on peace process.

Obama, left, met Mubarak in Cairo when he delivered his speech to the Muslim world in June [EPA]

Barack Obama will try to re-invigorate his push for a Middle East peace settlement as he hosts talks with Hosni Mubarak, the Egyptian president, at the White House.

Before Tuesday’s meeting with the US president, Mubarak held discussions with Hillary Clinton, the US secretary of state, and other senior officials on Monday.

Mubarak was supposed to have visited Washington earlier this year but postponed the trip because of the death of his grandson.

According to Ahmed Aboul Gheit, the Egyptian foreign minister, Mubarak plans to press Obama to publicly present his peace plan soon, without waiting until Israel changes its position on the building of illegal settlements.

Aboul Gheit told Cairo’s state-run daily newspaper Al Ahram that Egypt maintains Israel should freeze all settlement expansion immediately and pull back its army from positions in the West Bank.

He indicated that Mubarak would resist Obama’s calls for more meaningful Arab recognition of Israel as a confidence-building measure, saying Israel is the one that must do much more to establish the trust of its peace plan partners and neighbours.

Lost momentum

However, there is no question that the US president’s early push towards a peace settlement has lost momentum.

Binyamin Netanyahu, Israel’s prime minister, has dug his heels in over the settlements issue, insisting settlers must be allowed to continue building in order to make room for so-called “natural growth”.

Avigdor Lieberman, the Israeli foreign minister, has said that language about “resistance” emerging from the Fatah conference earlier this month had “buried” peace prospects for years to come.

And the Palestinians themselves remain divided between Hamas in Gaza and Fatah in the West Bank.

Egypt is trying to broker unity talks between the factions.

Hosni Mubarak is 81 and has ruled Egypt for almost three decades [Reuters]

Hamas itself last week had to deal with an ultra-hardline armed faction which rebelled in Gaza.

It crushed the challengers, showing no hesitation about using massive and lethal force against anyone who would question its legitimacy or religious credentials.

Looming above all of this is Iran, the simmering dispute over its nuclear intentions, and the very real possibility that Israel could strike it at some point in the near future.

Meanwhile, Obama’s energies are almost completely consumed by the vicious battle over healthcare reform, the signature domestic issue of his presidency.

Given the chaotic political and diplomatic status in the region, it seems that, barring some miracle, Obama’s peace plan will simply keep plodding along, with envoy George Mitchell racking up frequent-flyer points with little hope of a breakthrough in sight.

Fading survivor

Mubarak shunned George Bush, Obama’s predecessor, over the war in Iraq and the pro-democracy pressure the US president applied on Egypt.

This is his first visit to Washington in five years. But it is not his first meeting with Obama: they held talks in June when Obama visited Cairo to make his major speech to the Muslim world.

That conciliatory speech, and the decision by Obama to de-emphasise the Bush pro-democracy policy in Egypt and elsewhere in the Middle East, was no doubt a source of satisfaction to the Egyptian leader.

But this could well be one of the last times Mubarak strolls through the Rose Garden.

Mubarak is 81 years old and has ruled Egypt for 28 years.

His sclerotic regime relies on secret police power and intimidation at the polls to retain its undemocratic grip on power.

His hands are shaky and his voice has grown weaker, and he needed help climbing a flight of stairs on a trip to Italy last month.

The amount of official information the Egyptian public receives about its president’s health is zero, making the Mubarak mortality guessing game a favourite in Cairo cafes and tea shops.

During the White House’s staged photo opportunities this week, Egyptians and Americans will have an opportunity to contrast the two leaders: Mubarak the shrewd but fading survivor; Obama the vigorous but inexperienced newcomer.

It should be an interesting picture.

Source : Al Jazeera

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