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Obama Meets Mubarak, Says He Sees 'Positive Steps' In Mideast

  • Heather Maher

U.S. President Barack Obama (right) meets with his Egyptian counterpart, Hosni Mubarak, in Washington on August 18.

U.S. President Barack Obama (right) meets with his Egyptian counterpart, Hosni Mubarak, in Washington on August 18.

WASHINGTON -- U.S. President Barack Obama met with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak at the White House for what was Mubarak's first visit to Washington in five years.

His August 18 visit came as the Obama administration has been looking to resume the stalled Middle East peace process and win the support of Arab states in those efforts.

With Mubarak at his side, Obama said he is encouraged by signs of progress on both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian divide toward reducing tensions and moving closer to peace talks.

At a White House press conference following talks with Mubarak, Obama said the Israeli government is taking negotiations with the United States "very seriously" and both sides have taken confidence-building measures that reflect Washington's desire to see evidence of concrete and "parallel" steps by all parties.

"All of this is creating a climate in which it's possible for us to see some positive steps and hopefully negotiate toward a final resolution of these long-standing issues," Obama said. "But everybody is going to have to take steps; everybody is going to have to take some risks. It's going to require a lot of hard work, and the United States is committed to being a partner in this process.

"And Egypt will be as important as any other party in helping to move the process forward because Egypt is uniquely positioned in some ways, having very strong relationships with Israel, with the Palestinians, and with other Arab states, and President Mubarak has as much experience in the region as anybody," Obama added.

Hard Line With Israel

Obama came into office saying that restarting peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians was a top foreign policy priority, and he has taken a hard line with the Israeli government over the contentious issue of expanding Jewish settlements on land the Palestinians believe should be part of their own state.

His demand that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu freeze construction of new settlements in east Jerusalem and the West Bank, and Netanyahu's refusal to do so, has created uncharacteristic tension between the two allies.

Mubarak said he came to Washington to meet with Obama and discuss what role he and his Arab counterparts can play in solving the decades-old conflict, because, in his words, "we cannot afford to waste more time."

Through a translator, Mubarak told Obama, "We are moving in the right direction and the Arab states are ready to help if the Israelis and the Palestinians returned to peace talks."

He said the "Arab people are fed up with the length that this issue has taken" and added that he had told Israeli officials to "forget about temporary solutions [or] borders" because a final status must be reached.

Obama said the two men had spent time in their meeting discussing how to "jump-start an effective process on all sides to move away from a status quo that is not working for the Israeli people, the Palestinian people" or "the region as a whole."

New Start In Relations

It was the 81-year old Mubarak's first visit to the White House in five years and represented something of a new start in bilateral relations between the two countries. Relations were damaged during the administration of President George W. Bush by the Iraq war and blunt U.S. criticism over democracy and human rights.

Mubarak signaled a new tone, praising Obama's June speech to the Muslim world in Cairo as "a great, fantastic address" that removed "all those doubts" that "the U.S. was against Islam." He gave Obama his assurance that Egypt would be "very strong" in its efforts to help resolve not only the Palestinian issue, but other regional issues, as well.

Those issues include Iran's suspected pursuit of a nuclear weapon and Iraq's recovery from years of war, both of which Obama said came up during the meeting.

"We discussed our common concerns about the potential proliferation of nuclear weapons in the region, including the development of nuclear weapons by Iran, and how we could work together on those fronts," Obama said. "We discussed Iraq -- and I want to thank the government of Egypt for being an Arab country that has moved forward to try to strengthen Iraq as it emerges from a wartime footing and a transition to a more stable democracy."

While in Washington, Mubarak also met with U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who raised Egypt's much-criticized human rights record, according to State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley. Crowley said Washington "would like to see Egypt embark on a path to expand political dialogue."

In his appearance with Obama, Mubarak said the two men had spoken about U.S. concerns about the Egyptian political system, and that he had told Obama that he has begun to implement a multiyear program of reforms.

Hours before Mubarak's meeting with Obama in Washington, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev welcomed Israeli President Shimon Peres to the Black Sea resort of Sochi for talks that were expected to focus on the Middle East and the Iranian nuclear standoff.

Russia wants to host an international conference on the Middle East peace process, and Israel wants Russia, which has close ties with Iran, to increase pressure on Tehran over its nuclear program.