President Hosni Mubarak on Thursday confirmed an invitation to Israel’s right-wing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to come to Egypt, but without his firebrand Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman.
"The Israeli prime minister might come to see us in May," Mubarak said, confirming Israeli statements that Netanyahu had been invited to visit the Jewish state’s most important Arab ally "in the next few weeks."
"Some say… that he will bring his foreign minister with him," Mubarak said during a speech to mark the end of Israel’s 15-year occupation of the Sinai Peninsula in 1982
"The Israeli prime minister is coming alone. His cabinet chief will come with him. He will not bring any other minister with him," Mubarak said.
Israel’s Foreign Ministry on Wednesday said that Lieberman, who last year said that Mubarak could "go to hell" if he continued to refuse to visit Israel, had been invited to visit Egypt.
The invitations were made during a visit to Jerusalem on Wednesday by Egyptian Intelligence Chief Omar Suleiman, which marked the first meeting between a high-level Egyptian official and the new Israeli leader since Netanyahu took office on March 31.
Relations between Egypt and Israel have deteriorated since Lieberman was named foreign minister, with Egyptian counterpart Ahmed Abul Gheit pointedly saying he would not shake his hand.
Several Israeli leaders have visited Egypt since the two countries signed a peace treaty in 1979, but Mubarak has never been on an official trip to the Jewish state, except for one brief visit to Tel Aviv, during 27 years of power, for the 1995 funeral of slain Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin.
During a two-hour meeting with Suleiman, who is a key mediator with Hamas in the Gaza Strip, Netanyahu underlined "the common interests between Egypt and Israel, starting with peace" between their countries.
Netanyahu’s expected visit to Cairo is part of efforts to restart prisoner-exchange talks with Hamas, which has been holding an Israeli soldier captive for three years.
Netanyahu’s refusal to publicly endorse the creation of a Palestinian state has raised fears that Israel’s new cabinet is on a collision course with the new U.S. administration, which has vowed to push ahead with the peace process.
Moreover, Lieberman’s hardline stance has raised concerns about the fate of peacemaking with the Palestinians.
The Israeli Foreign Ministry statement said that Lieberman "expressed his respect and appreciation for Egypt’s leading role in the region and his personal respect for Mubarak and Minister Suleiman," adding that his 30-minutes meeting with Suleiman was "important and constructive."
Lieberman heads the ultranationalist Yisrael Beitenu party and his appointment as Israel’s top diplomat under a coalition pact with Netanyahu was an affront to Egypt, the first Arab state to make peace with the Jewish state.
As a political newcomer, Lieberman suggested Egypt’s Aswan Dam might be bombed should it fight another war with Israel.
Egypt, like Israel, borders Gaza and has been involved in a blockade aimed at pressuring Hamas into softening its opposition to peace talks led by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. It has also been trying to broker rapprochement between Hamas and Abbas’s secular Fatah, which fought a brief civil war in 2007.
Israel has in the past complained about Cairo’s handling of arms-smuggling to Gaza from the Sinai Peninsula. However, Israeli analysts saw relations warming after Egypt this month announced it had cracked a gunrunner ring working for Iranian-backed Shiite Lebanese opposition Hezbollah.
Suleiman also invited Defense Minister Ehud Barak to Egypt during a separate meeting and likewise held talks with President Shimon Peres, Israeli officials said.
(Alarabiya.net and Agencies)