900 Palestinian Prisoners to Gain Freedom (AP) By PAUL GARWOOD CAIRO, EGYPT 02/03/05 7:42 AM)
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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
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
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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