Steven Lee Myers
The New York Times
October 17, 2007 - 10:36am

Egypt expressed unusually strong support on Tuesday for the Bush administration’s efforts to hold an international conference this fall to begin negotiating peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians.

Egypt’s leaders, including President Hosni Mubarak, have criticized aspects of the effort, but after meetings here with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, Foreign Minister Ahmed Abul Gheit said he believed that the administration was determined to have meaningful talks.

A day before he had said the conference should be postponed if the issues on the table were not substantive.

“What the secretary has told us today is encouraging,” Mr. Abul Gheit said at a news conference with Ms. Rice. “It gives us a lot of confidence in what she is doing.”

American officials consider the support of neighboring states, particularly Egypt and Jordan, essential to ensuring that the Israelis and Palestinians reach whatever compromises are necessary to end their conflict and establish a Palestinian state.

On her third day of talks Ms. Rice is trying to lay the foundation for an international conference to be held in Annapolis, Md.

With the Israelis and Palestinians divided over how much to commit to paper before those talks begin and Ms. Rice promising no immediate breakthroughs, the Egyptian reaction appeared to buoy American officials.

Ms. Rice said she hoped that an initial agreement between the Israelis and the Palestinians could come “fairly soon,” after which the United States would extend invitations to Israel’s Arab neighbors to join the conference, perhaps by the end of November.

Egypt’s support was not unconditional. Mr. Abul Gheit backed the demands by the Palestinians that the negotiations have a strict timetable, something Israel has opposed. He noted that 16 years had passed since the Madrid Conference first laid the foundation for Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, 14 years since the Oslo agreement established the Palestinian Authority and 5 years since the “road map” agreement on steps to achieve a final peace.

“The idea,” he said, “is we cannot just negotiate endlessly.”

Ms. Rice, when asked, said she had raised concerns about Egypt’s internal affairs, including the jailing of Ayman Nour, the onetime presidential candidate and opposition leader, and the arrests of journalists. That prompted a polite but stark exchange with Mr. Abul Gheit.

“There is no mixing between politics and due process,” he said, expressing a view widely disputed inside Egypt and abroad.

Ms. Rice then signaled the end of the news conference. “Are we done?” she asked.

“Yes, but as you wish,” he said.

“It’s up to you,” Ms. Rice replied. “It’s your house.”

“No, no, no,” he countered. “I’m at your disposal.”

“All right,” she said, and they answered a final question about the Bush administration’s refusal to criticize Israel’s continued seizures of land in the West Bank.


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