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900 Palestinian Prisoners to Gain Freedom (AP) By PAUL GARWOOD CAIRO, EGYPT 02/03/05 7:42 AM)Source: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles/A59845-2005Feb3.html AP} ASSOCIATED PRESS AP} ASSOCIATED PRESS Articles-Index-TopPublishers-Index-Top
CAIRO, Egypt - Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, whose mantle as the region´s main mediator has been tested by four years of Israeli- Palestinian violence, is trying to reassert his role by inviting the leaders of Israel, the Palestinians and Jordan to a summit to push the reinvigorated peace process.

The 76-year-old president, Egypt´s ruler since 1981, has gone from leading the Egyptian air campaign against Israeli jets in the 1973 regional war to urging Palestinian militants to stop suicide bombings and describing Israeli Premier Ariel Sharon - reviled by Muslims around the world - as a peacemaker.

Mubarak´s praise of Sharon marked a huge shift. Since 2001, the Egyptian had refused to meet with the Israeli leader, and less than two years ago Mubarak dismissed Sharon as a man with no "intention to start working for peace."

But in the wake of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat´s Nov. 11 death, Mubarak - like millions across the region - recognized an opportunity for an end to the cycle of Palestinian-Israeli bloodshed sparked by Sharon´s September 2000 visit to a revered Muslim shrine in Jerusalem.

"Mubarak wants to be in charge of trying to end the Middle East conflict, because this has always been the main problem for the Arabs," said Mohammed Salah, Cairo bureau chief of the leading pan- Arab newspaper Al-Hayat.

"It is important for him to be able to say to the people that ´I solved this problem, I am the only Arab leader that could do it.´"

Mubarak took a step in this direction Wednesday, inviting Sharon, new Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Jordanian King Abdullah II to a summit next week in the Sinai resort of Sharm el-Sheik to capitalize on the revived peace hopes.

The summit, which has been welcomed by the White House, is expected to focus on the fate of Palestinian fugitives and a West Bank troop redeployment. Speculation is also circling around the possible return of Egyptian and Jordanian ambassadors to Israel.

On Thursday, Israeli Vice Premier Shimon Peres said his nation and the Palestinians are working to iron out the terms of a cease-fire to be declared at the summit.

Also, Israeli Cabinet ministers on Thursday approved the release of 900 Palestinian prisoners and a withdrawal from the West Bank town of Jericho, officials said. About 500 of the prisoners will be released immediately after the summit.

Peres said he did not know whether the truce would be a signed, written agreement, but said the goal was to declare the end to four years of violence.

The timing of Mubarak´s announcement also coincided with high-level talks between Egyptian officials and Syrian-based leaders of the Palestinian militant groups Hamas and Islamic Jihad in Cairo to try and secure a Palestinian cease-fire in attacks against Israelis.

Egypt has been the lead player in trying to make Palestinian militants lay down their weapons. It has also tried to get Palestinian security forces increased in the neighboring Gaza Strip ahead of a planned Israeli withdrawal expected later this year.

Egypt, which once controlled Gaza, has said it would take responsibility for securing its own border with the volatile coastal strip, which has been the scene of heavy fighting and fierce Israeli military reprisals during the Palestinian uprising.

"There is no agreement yet on a truce" with Israel, Islamic Jihad spokesman Nafez Azzam said in a phone interview from Gaza. But the talks are "taking place in a positive atmosphere."

Militant leaders say any final agreement depends on Israel´s willingness to make crucial concessions, including ending targeted killings of Palestinians leaders and releasing Palestinian prisoners.

Israel has resisted pledging to halt attacks on Palestinian militants, but its officials have said they will "respond to quiet with quiet."

Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal, currently in Cairo for talks with Egypt´s intelligence chief, told Arab TV station Al-Jazeera that a Palestinian cease-fire was not "dependent on a summit," but on Israeli willingness to offer concessions.

Egypt believes a truce can revive the U.S.-backed "road map" plan for Israeli-Palestinian peace and wants to ensure calm in the Gaza Strip after Israel carries out its planned military withdrawal.

George Joffe, a British expert on Middle Eastern affairs and professor at London´s King´s College, said Mubarak wants to ensure his - and Egypt´s - role in the peace process remains integral.

"Mubarak can´t bring the conflict to an end but he can be the mediator, and that for him is crucial, particularly as he has felt shut out since Sharon came to power and that no one has really listened to Egypt in the past three or four years," Joffe said in a telephone interview.

Success for Mubarak in mediating between the conflict´s foes, says Joffe, will ensure "he becomes pivotal in the U.S. process to push the peace process forward."

Strong ties with the United States, the source of more than $2 billion worth of military and civil aid per year since Egypt signed its 1979 peace treaty with Israel, are crucial for Cairo, particularly as the Bush administration remains committed to reforming Middle Eastern regimes like Mubarak´s. (Copyright © 2005 Agence France Presse. 02/03/05)


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