WASHINGTON: President Barack Obama won lavish praise Tuesday from his guest, President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt, and spoke of an extraordinary opportunity for making peace in the Middle East.
Obama said he was encouraged by US efforts to restart talks between Israel and the Palestinians.
Seated next to Mubarak, who was making his first visit to the US capital in five years, Obama thanked the Egyptian for joining him in trying to construct a deal that has eluded world leaders for more than six decades.
Returning the compliment, Mubarak asserted that Obama s speech to the world s Muslims, delivered in Cairo in June, had convinced Arabs that the United States truly was an honest broker.
The 81-year-old Egyptian leader, who was estranged from the former Bush administration, said Obama had removed all doubts about the United States and the Muslim world.
Mubarak said, The Islamic world had thought that the US was against Islam, but his (Obama s) great, fantastic address there has removed all those doubts.
Obama s positive assessment of the peace effort was issued in response to a question about reports that Israel had stopped granting permission for new settlements in the West Bank, even though building in progress was continuing.
Palestinians and other critics dismissed the Israeli move as insignificant, pointing out that construction continues on the ground in a number of settlements in Palestinian territory.
Obama has made resuming peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians a major foreign policy goal, hoping a breakthrough there would lead to wider agreements among the Jewish state and its Arab neighbors.
To that end, Obama has demanded that the Israeli government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu freeze construction of Jewish settlements in East Jerusalem and the West Bank, land that the Palestinians want for a state. Netanyahu s public refusal has opened a rare rift between the traditionally close allies.
Nevertheless, Obama said: The Israeli government has taken discussions with us very seriously. He said he was encouraged by some of the things I am seeing on the ground.
All parties, Obama said, have to take steps to restart serious negotiations, including Palestinian efforts to end the incitement of violence against Israel.
Obama took pains to include references to needed steps not only from Israel but also the Palestinians and the other Arab countries.
If all sides are willing to move off of the rut that we re in currently, then I think there is an extraordinary opportunity to make real progress. But we re not there yet, Obama said.
Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman told US lawmakers last week that pushing for a fast-track deal over the next year would not work and proposed concentrating on security and Palestinian economic conditions.
Mubarak said an end to Jewish settlement activity was central to a resumption of Israeli-Palestinian talks and a wider improvement of ties among the Israelis and all of their Arab neighbors.
Mubarak took a traditionally tough stand about the hard issues that still must be settled between Israel and the Palestinians, saying he had told the Israelis that they must forget temporary solutions and forget about temporary borders.
Mubarak told Obama he would not offer concessions to Israel until it took concrete steps, his spokesman Soliman Awaad said, adding that Arab states believed Netanyahu slowed peace moves during his first spell as Israeli leader.
It s like an egg and chicken situation, Awaad told reporters. He told him it won t fly. He reminded him that this was a deja vu situation.
The US president, he added, hoped to unveil a comprehensive Middle East peace plan around the time of the UN General Assembly (UNGA) next month.
Today, Mr Obama said that hopefully after (US Middle East peace envoy George) Mitchell and Netanyahu meet next week, the peace blueprint should be there in the course of next month, in September, Awaad said.
But White House spokesman Robert Gibbs denied knowing of such a plan, although he said the UNGA would be an important chance to forge progress.
Egypt made peace with Israel 30 years ago and Jordan, Israel s eastern neighbor that formerly controlled the West Bank, followed suit, but not until 1994.
The Arabs, backing a long-standing peace offer from Saudi Arabia, have said they were willing to recognize Israel and make peace if the Jewish state returns to borders as they existed before the 1967 Six-Day War. Israel annexed all of Jerusalem and captured the West Bank during that conflict.
Mubarak looked robust despite reports that he was growing increasingly frail and preparing his 46-year-old son, Gamal, as a successor.
Mubarak had been a regular visitor to Washington during the Clinton administration. Then he stayed away to protest the US invasion of Iraq and President George W. Bush s intensified pressure to open the Egyptian political system and moderate its human rights policies.
That was in the past, Mubarak said.
Relations between us and the United States are very good relations and strategic relations. And despite some of the hoops that we had with previous administrations, this did not change the nature of our bilateral relations.
Both leaders said they had talked about reforming Egypt s political system, but Obama has been far less vocal publicly, an obvious bid to lower the temperature in relations with the Middle East s most populous Arab country. Mubarak s fulsome praise of Obama suggested the strategy was paying benefits.
US critics, however, insist that Obama must not relent in pressuring Mubarak on reform.
On Iran, one of the largest and most complicated foreign challenges facing Obama, Mubarak said he and Obama talked at length about worries that Tehran is trying to build a nuclear weapon.
Mubarak – like Obama, Israeli leaders and many Arab countries – sees a nuclear-armed Iran as a game-changing possibility that could upend the power balance in the Middle East.
While noting they confronted the issue, neither leader indicated how they intend to move forward.
Obama has sought to establish a dialogue with the Iranians but has set a September deadline for Tehran s Islamic leaders to respond.
A next US step would center on efforts to enforce tougher UN sanctions aimed at punishing Iran economically and further isolating the Islamic regime, which claims it is developing the technology for nuclear generation of electricity, not a bomb.
Israel has spoken openly of a possible military attack on Iran s nuclear facilities but is widely believed to have agreed to stand down to give the US policy time to work. – Additional reporting by AFP.