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Egypt-Israel summit to pave way for peace meet


Cairo : Egyptian President Hosny Mubarak Tuesday met Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert in the build-up of diplomatic efforts to bridge differences ahead of this week’s Middle East peace conference.

Israel backed by the US wants a high-level Arab presence at the conference that is planned for the end of November in Annapolis, Maryland.

But in the absence of a breakthrough so far at intensive Israeli-Palestinian talks to draft a joint statement that would be the backbone of the Annapolis meeting, Arab countries are sceptical that the meeting will yield any significant results.

Olmert backed by Washington seeks to pressure Egypt, a key US ally, to have a high-level representation in Annapolis.

Saudi Arabia, another key regional player, has already signalled its reservation over the upcoming conference, saying it was futile unless there was prior agreement on core issues. Riyadh has no ties with Israel, which makes a decision to attend direct talks with the Jewish state even more difficult.

Syria, although invited by the US, indicated it would not attend, saying any peace talks should include the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights on the agenda.

In an attempt to woo his Arab interlocutors and improve the prospects of the Annapolis conference, Olmert announced Monday that he would free 441 Palestinian prisoners and renewed the pledge not to build new Jewish settlements in the West Bank.

But the move is not satisfactory to Palestinians who want the release of 2,000 prisoners and an end to the expansion of existing settlements.

Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Abul-Gheit called on Israel Monday to confirm it was implementing an immediate freeze on settlements and hoped it was not just “toying with ideas.”

Arab foreign ministers are scheduled to meet in Cairo Friday to agree on a united position on the Annapolis meeting.