Israel Sees Arab Initiative as an Opportunity

Israeli President Shimon Peres has endorsed on Thursday the "spirit" of a broad Arab initiative as an "opportunity" that can bring peace to a Middle East, still torn by the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Peres, welcomed with pomp and ceremony in the Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh by Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, made the remarks within his efforts to jump-start a 2002 Saudi proposal for comprehensive peace in the region.

The Saudi proposal offers pan-Arab recognition of Israel in exchange for Israel’s withdrawal from Arab lands captured in 1967.

President Mubarak vowed to rekindle Cairo’s stalled efforts to broker a prisoner swap with Hamas, after talks with Israeli President Shimon Peres.

Peres said Mubarak promised to step up efforts to secure the release of an Israeli soldier captured by Gaza militants more than two years ago.

Mubarak "promised me to increase the efforts to release Gilad Shalit that would affect not only one family but the entire people of the region," Peres told a joint press conference.

"I hope the efforts to bring about his release will be increased and yield results."
 
Mediating Role

In recent months, Egypt has assumed a crucial role in mediating between Israel and Hamas, which does not recognize the Jewish state. Israel, along with the United States and the European Union, blacklists Hamas as a terrorist group.

Mubarak "confirmed Egypt’s efforts to bringing positions closer that would lead to the agreement for the release of Shalit and Palestinian prisoners."

Hamas has demanded that Israel release about 1,400 Palestinian prisoners, including hundreds implicated in deadly attacks on Israelis, according to a senior Israeli defense official.

Mubarak denied that the prisoner exchange talks had failed: "We have not failed. The Israeli side knows perfectly well what Egypt is doing in regards to Shalit."

Hamas seized control of Gaza in June 2007 after routing forces loyal to Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas.

Last June, Israel and Hamas agreed to a six-month Egyptian-brokered truce in and around the Gaza Strip, ending months of fighting.

Although both sides have largely observed the fragile agreement, little visible progress has so far been made in the talks on a prisoner exchange, with Israel voicing reluctance to free many of those demanded by Hamas.
 
Peace Talks

The two leaders also discussed Israel-Palestinian peace talks, which have been put on hold pending the formation of a new Israeli government following Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s resignation.

Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni said on Thursday she will form a new coalition government by Sunday, failing which she will ask for snap elections.

Livni will form the government after Olmert resigned last month to battle a string of corruption scandals.

Mubarak said the talks also dealt with "supporting peace talks between the Palestinian Authority and Israel, and stabilizing calm in Gaza and raising the siege on the inhabitants of the Strip."

However, he criticized ongoing Jewish settlement building in the occupied West Bank, saying that has "a negative impact on building trust and pushing peace process forward."

Israel and the Palestinians re-launched peace talks last November at a U.S.-hosted conference with the goal of reaching a deal by the end of 2008, but most observers believe that is unlikely.

The talks also focused on the Hamas-Israel truce and on Egyptian efforts to reconcile the rival Palestinian factions.

(Agencies via Alarabiya.net)

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