CAIRO: The Israeli and Palestinian leaders prepared to hold separate meetings with President Hosni Mubarak in Cairo on Sunday after Mubarak conferred with the US Middle East envoy on a push for direct talks between the two men.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas were not expected to meet, Mubarak’s office stressed, despite months of efforts by US envoy George Mitchell to end an 18-month hiatus in face-to-face negotiations.
Mubarak and Mitchell discussed "efforts to push forward the peace process and to prepare the necessary conditions for negotiations that achieve a two-state solution," the official MENA news agency reported.
The envoy met the Israeli premier in Jerusalem earlier in the day.
Netanyahu told reporters before flying to Cairo that he would discuss the prospects for direct talks with Mubarak, who has publicly supported the Palestinians’ conditions for resuming the negotiations which they broke off in December 2008 after Israel launched a devastating offensive against Gaza.
The Palestinian leadership restated the conditions after a meeting between the US envoy and Abbas in the West Bank town of Ramallah on Saturday.
Arab League chief Amr Mussa said on Sunday that Palestinians could not move to from indirect to direct talks with Israel without written guarantees.
"We cannot automatically move from one negotiation to another without written guarantees," said Mussa, whose 22-member pan-Arab organization backed indirect talks between Israel and Palestinians in May.
He made his comments after meeting US Middle East envoy George Mitchell and after Mitchell, Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu held separate talks with Mubarak.
The Arab League first backed the talks in March but then endorsed the Palestinians’ refusal to go ahead with them after Israel announced plans to build more Jewish homes in mainly Arab east Jerusalem.
It supported them again a month later after the Palestinians said they had received unspecified assurances from the United States.
Senior Palestinian official Yasser Abed Rabbo called for greater clarity from Washington about its position on new negotiations, insisting that the Palestinians wanted to address the core issues of the Middle East conflict.
"Until now there is no clarity in the (US) position on a number of issues, especially those related to moving into final status talks," Abed Rabbo told reporters.
"The three-hour meeting between Abbas and Mitchell was important but there are several issues, most important among them the settlements and the situation in Jerusalem, that need more clarity," Abed Rabbo said.
The Palestinians have long demanded a complete freeze on Israeli settlement expansion ahead of direct talks and have accused Israel of undermining the process by approving new settler homes in annexed Arab east Jerusalem, which they want as the capital of their promised state.
Earlier this month, during a visit to Washington by Netanyahu, Obama said he hoped to see direct talks begin before a partial Israeli moratorium on the expansion of Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank ends in September.
The Palestinians reluctantly agreed to join US-brokered indirect peace talks in May and Mitchell has since shuttled repeatedly between Washington, Jerusalem and Ramallah.
In recent weeks, Abbas had appeared to back away from his previous demand for a full settlement freeze as a condition for opening direct talks, instead insisting on "progress" on the issue of borders and security.
In an interview published on Saturday, he said he would meet Netanyahu if Israel agreed in principle to a Palestinian state based on the borders before Israel’s occupation of the West Bank during the 1967 war, with equal land swaps and the presence of an international security force.
"Israel must accept that the Palestinian territory in question be that of the 1967 borders and with the presence of a third party," he told Jordan’s Al-Ghad newspaper, referring to Gaza and the West Bank, including east Jerusalem.
"This will push us to embark on direct negotiations," Abbas said.
The Palestinians say Netanyahu has yet to respond to the proposal, and the prime minister has previously said Israeli forces must remain in the strategic Jordan Valley after any peace deal to prevent weapons smuggling.
In an indication of the domestic pressure Abbas faces, his own Fatah party on Thursday told him not to join direct talks with Netanyahu’s right-wing government without showing progress in the US-brokered indirect talks.