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Israel's Olmert Has First Meeting with Egypt's Mubarak

HOWARD BERKES, host:

One other diplomatic note today. Israel's Prime Minister Ehud Olmert held talks with Egypt's President Hosni Mubarak in the Egyptian resort of Sharm e-Sheikh. The focus was Israel's plan to withdraw from parts of the occupied West Bank unilaterally, if it decides it can't negotiate a settlement with the Palestinians.

NPR's Linda Gradstein is in Sharm e-Sheikh, where the Egyptian and Israeli leaders held a news conference.

Linda, President Mubarak has taken the Palestinian position that any Israeli withdrawal should be negotiated with the Palestinians. Is that what he said today?

LINDA GRADSTEIN reporting:

Yes, he did say that today. He said he encouraged the Israeli prime minister to open negotiations with the Palestinians. He said Egypt would do whatever it could to help those negotiations.

However, he hinted that Egypt would not oppose a unilateral withdrawal if Israel decides that that's what would happened when he said we want negotiations but if they don't work then, quote, "We will have to find another way."

And another Egyptian official said on background that Egypt will not oppose any withdrawal from occupied territory.

So there seems to be a shift in the Egyptian position. They still prefer negotiations, but that they will not stop Israel and will not try to prevent a unilateral withdrawal if that's what Israel decides it's going to do.

BERKES: And what did the prime minister of Israel, Olmert, have to say about that?

GRADSTEIN: Well, interestingly, the Prime Minister seemed to really try to reassure his Egyptian host that Israel was serious about opening a dialogue with the Palestinian leadership. He said that Israel is committed to the U.S. backed roadmap to peace and to promoting negotiations with Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas. He said he was going to meet with Abbas. That's expected to happen sometime later this month. However, the Palestinian government is now headed by Hamas, and Hamas has refused to recognize Israel and to respect the former commitments that the Palestinian authority has signed.

So most Israeli officials that I've spoken to say that Olmert is serious about opening a dialogue with Abbas, but without a change in the Hamas position those negotiations really aren't going to get anywhere.

BERKES: Well, do you think that Egypt is going to have much influence over the Palestinians and Hamas in particular, given that Hamas is this Islamist organization and Egypt barely tolerates it's own homegrown Islamist organization, the Moslem Brotherhood?

GRADSTEIN: Well, on one hand that true and there have been tensions between the Hamas government and Egypt because of Egypt's treatment of the Moslem Brotherhood there. At the same time, Egypt has tried to mediate between Fatah and Hamas, and the tensions between those two groups have spilled over to gun battles and Egypt has tried to mediate, and Egypt has also been providing quite a lot of humanitarian aid to the Palestinian people. So there may be some room for Egypt to try to convince Hamas to change its position. At the same time Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak said in the news conference that he has no intention of pressuring Hamas.

BERKES: Now Linda I understand that this summit took place under a bit of a cloud. There was a shooting incident along the border on Friday. Tell us about that.

GRADSTEIN: Well, the circumstances are not exactly clear. Apparently two Egyptian policemen crossed the border into Israel and at least according to the Israelis opened fire at Israeli soldiers. Israel fired back killing the two policemen. It's not clear if they thought the Israeli soldiers were smugglers or exactly what was going on. Prime Minister Olmert expressed his deep regret over the incident and said that they were going to form a joint commission to investigate it. At the same time I have to say that I was really struck by the obvious warmth between President Mubarak and Prime Minister Olmert. President Mubarak called Olmert a man of vision and integrity and Olmert departed from his prepared text and he very warmly called President Mubarak one of the most experienced and important politicians that he has ever had the opportunity to meet. And I actually had expected that there would be some tensions at this meeting, and in fact the atmosphere was really very warm and friendly.

BERKES: NPR's Linda Gradstein in Sharm El Sheikh, Egypt. Thank you.

GRADSTEIN: Thank you, Howard. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Howard Berkes is a correspondent for the NPR Investigations Unit.
Linda Gradstein
Linda Gradstein has been the Israel correspondent for NPR since 1990. She is a member of the team that received the Overseas Press Club award for her coverage of the assassination of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and the team that received Alfred I. DuPont-Columbia University Award for Excellence in Broadcast Journalism for her coverage of the Gulf War. Linda spent 1998-9 as a Knight Journalist Fellow at Stanford University.
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