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Netanyahu, Arab Leaders Meet on Next Steps of Peace Process

Israeli Premier Benjamin Netanyahu talked this week with Jordanian Prime Minister Abdul Karim al-Kabariti in what was his first meeting with an Arab leader since winning the Jewish state’s general elections in May.

The surprise meeting in Tel Aviv took place Wednesday, after Kabariti met with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in Cairo.

Syrian Foreign Minister Farouk al-Sharaa also was at the Cairo meeting, at which the leaders discussed the course of the peace process.

Netanyahu is himself scheduled to meet Thursday in Cairo with Mubarak, who is expected to play a prominent mediation role in talks Israel holds with the Palestinians and Syria.

Mubarak’s role as a regional leader was bolstered by an Arab summit held last month in Cairo at which 21 members of the Arab League met to coordinate strategy in the wake of Netanyahu’s victory. Netanyahu acknowledged this role when he told a joint news conference after meeting with Kabariti, “We both recognize the central importance of Egypt as the cornerstone for the Arab- Israeli peace.”

The Jordanian prime minister stressed that Arab states would wait to hear from Netanyahu directly, rather than judge him based on public remarks he had already made.

Kabariti also told reporters after meeting with Netanyahu that Israel and Jordan shared the common interest of seeing the peace process move forward, but added that “there is concern” among Arab leaders about the positions Netanyahu will adopt regarding the peace process.

Netanyahu’s victory in the May 29 elections over Labor Party incumbent Shimon Peres prompted concern — and anger — among Arab states that the Likud leader would abandon the land-for-peace principle that has so far been the basis of negotiations over the past several years.

Netanyahu said at the joint news conference that he was interested in expanding Israel’s ties with the Palestinian Authority and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.

Foreign Minister David Levy said Wednesday that he expected to meet Arafat in coming days, but gave no further details.

His announcement came the same day that Arafat refused to hold a meeting with Netanyahu’s political adviser, Dore Gold.

Palestinian sources said Arafat snubbed Gold because of Netanyahu’s refusal to hold a face-to-face meeting with Arafat.

Gold traveled Wednesday to Cairo to prepare for the prime minister’s trip.

Netanyahu is scheduled to be in Egypt for only a few hours. He is set to travel to Amman, Jordan, for talks later this month.

Egypt’s ambassador to Israel was clear in remarks he made on the eve of Netanyahu’s visit that there was only one message Arab states were interested in hearing.

Netanyahu “must understand that without the land-for-peace principle, peace with security is incomprehensible and even impossible,” Mohammed Basiouny said Wednesday at a Tel Aviv symposium on the peace process.

The Prime Minister’s Office said Netanyahu’s talks with Mubarak were intended to let the two get acquainted.

But Basiouny said Mubarak would push Netanyahu to act quickly to meet Israel’s obligations in its agreements with the Palestinians.

These include carrying out the Israeli troop redeployment from most of the West Bank town of Hebron and lifting the nearly five-month closure of the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

“We shall judge the actions of his government,” Basiouny said. “We don’t want to put him in a corner.”

Netanyahu’s office announced Wednesday that Israel would soon lift the closure, but provided no details of when the move would be implemented or whether it would be tied to actions carried out by the Palestinians.

The Egyptian ambassador stressed that the Israeli leader’s actions with regard to the Palestinians would also be a test of faith in negotiations with other Arab states as well.

Turning to the Syrian track, Basiouny said Israel could not reach a peace agreement with Syria unless it returned the Golan Heights.

The U.S. ambassador to Israel, who also addressed the symposium, said he believed that Syria was willing to normalize relations along the lines of those Israel has with Egypt and Jordan.

But he stressed that this was possible only with the return of the Golan Heights.

“Syria is prepared to normalize its relations with Israel — open borders, free flow of people and goods, and embassies,” Martin Indyk said. “They just want a high price in return.”

The previous Labor-led government had avowed its willingness to give up the Golan in return for a full peace with Syria, but little progress was achieved at the time in Israeli-Syrian talks.

Netanyahu wants to negotiate peace with Syria, but has pledged to not yield territory on the Golan.

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