Wed, Nov 21, 2007 - Page 6 News List

Egypt's help sought for Annapolis meet

ISRAELI MISSION Prime Minister Ehud Olmert wants Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak to rally Arab states behind the peace summit, pre-empting the Palestinians


Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert flew to Egypt yesterday to try to drum up support from reluctant Arab states for an upcoming Middle East peace conference, after failing to bridge gaps in a meeting with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.

Arab states have said they wouldn't give full support to the gathering next week in Annapolis, Maryland, unless it tackles the tough issues that have blocked the establishment of a Palestinian state in past talks.

But Israel and the Palestinians have been unable to meet their goal of reaching a joint blueprint for peace talks for presentation at the conference.

The deadlock is likely to influence the Arab League when it meets on Friday to decide whether to attend.

The conference is designed as a launching pad for formal negotiations, which broke down in violence seven years ago. Ahead of the meeting, its US hosts have been pressuring both sides to fulfill initial obligations under a recently revived peace plan known as the road map.

In its first phase, the road map calls on Israel to freeze all construction in West Bank settlements, and requires the Palestinians to crack down on armed groups.

On Monday, Israel stopped short of declaring a total halt to settlement activity, while Palestinians to rein in gunmen were dealt a setback when gunmen affiliated with Abbas' Fatah movement killed an Israeli settler.

The shooting late on Monday occurred in an area seen as a test case for the Palestinians' ability to impose law and order in the West Bank.

The same group also claimed responsibility for a failed infiltration attempt into southern Israel from Gaza in which two militants were killed by Israeli troops. Gaza is controlled by the Hamas militant group, and Abbas wields little control in the area, even over militants who support him.

Who's meeting whom

* Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert met with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas on Monday.

* Olmert met with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak yesterday.

* International Middle East envoy Tony Blair was also due to hold talks with Mubarak yesterday.

* Abbas is scheduled to brief Arab League ministers on Friday.

* The US-sponsored Middle East Conference is supposed to be held next week in Maryland, but the Arab League has not yet said it will attend.

At a morning meeting with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak at the resort of Sharm el-Sheik, Olmert was expected to seek Mubarak's help in rallying Arab support for the summit.

International Middle East envoy Tony Blair was expected in Sharm el-Sheik today for further discussions with Mubarak, said Matt Doyle, a spokesman for the former British prime minister.

Abbas is set to brief Arab League ministers on Friday before they decide their strategy on the conference called by US President George W. Bush.

Arab support is seen as key to promoting a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But Israel is afraid the league will pressure the Palestinians to take a hard line against Israel in Annapolis, an Israeli official said.

He spoke on condition of anonymity because he was discussing confidential talks.

The conference is set for early next week but the US has not yet issued formal invitations. An Israeli TV station said they would be sent yesterday.

On Monday, Olmert and Abbas had what an Abbas aide described as a difficult meeting, reflecting differences over all the main issues -- final borders, sovereignty over disputed Jerusalem, Palestinian refugees from the war that followed Israel's 1948 creation and Jewish West Bank settlements. These differences have prevented agreement on a joint pre-conference document, much as they have scuttled decades of peace efforts.

In an attempt to soften the atmosphere, Israel's Cabinet agreed earlier on Monday to free 441 of more than 9,000 Palestinians held in Israeli prisons. The gesture fell short of Palestinian demands for the release of 2,000 inmates, including those who have served long sentences.

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