Tim Sloan/AFP/Getty Images
Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak meeting with U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in Washington, D.C., Monday
Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak meeting with U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in Washington, D.C., Monday Tim Sloan/AFP/Getty Images
The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is likely to top a crowded agenda when President Obama hosts Egypt's President Hosni Mubarak at the White House on Tuesday.
The Obama administration has been urging Arab states to make some gestures to Israel and wants to see Egypt, which already has a peace deal with Israel, influence others in the Arab world to move in that direction.
Mubarak met Monday in Washington with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. The Egyptian leader and Clinton have "compared notes" on Israeli-Arab peacemaking efforts and agreed that there have to be "parallel steps here," said State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley.
The U.S. and the international community have urged Israel to freeze expansion of Jewish settlements in the West Bank while the Palestinians must improve security as requirements for renewing peace talks.
"As the Israelis focus on settlements, as the Palestinians strengthen their position and take steps to improve the security situation, we agree that there will need to be steps by Arab countries — gestures that move towards normalization of relations between Israel and the rest of the region," Crowley said.
However, Mubarak told Al Ahram, the government-controlled newspaper, that Arab states would normalize ties with Israel only after a comprehensive Middle East peace is achieved.
Abdel Monem Said Aly, an Egyptian commentator and chairman of the board of Al Ahram, told NPR that Mubarak is trying to keep the U.S. focused on that. "What President Mubarak is hoping to have from this trip is to convince Washington that the final contract is the one that is important," he said in an interview at the Middle East Institute in Washington.
So far, the Obama administration has expended much diplomatic energy on curbing Israeli settlement building in exchange for gestures from the Arab world. Abdel Monem is worried that the U.S. could get stuck haggling over these issues and lose sight of the thorniest issues dividing Israelis and Palestinians: borders, refugees and the status of Jerusalem.
"I'm afraid it might sidetrack the whole thing and take from what Obama said from the beginning that he wants — peace agreements, not peace process," the Egyptian commentator said.
There are other pressing issues on the agenda for the U.S. and Egyptian leaders: Iran's nuclear ambitions, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and Egypt's record on human rights, among others.
Their meeting at the White House comes less than three months after Obama delivered his landmark address to the Muslim world from Cairo.
Abdel Monem says he doesn't expect the Obama administration to lecture Mubarak much about democracy.
"So far, I feel that the chemistry is going very well; that there is a sea change happening in Egyptian-American relations since Obama came to office and came to Cairo," he said. "I think that will continue as the two countries are faced with not only the Arab-Israeli issue but also the general situation in the region in Iran, Afghanistan, Sudan, Yemen and the Horn of Africa."
But Egyptian dissident Saad Eddin Ibrahim is worried that the U.S. is focusing on strategic goals at the expense of human rights.
"[President Obama] prefers quiet diplomacy behind closed doors to produce results. We politely asked his top advisers on what results they have accomplished and they said, 'Very little.' I said, 'Well, my fellow Egyptians both here and back home are quite disappointed. It is not just that you have not produced results; you are giving the Mubarak regime a free pass,' " Ibrahim said.
At the National Press Club on Monday, Ibrahim and other activists released letters they have written to Mubarak and Obama calling for political changes in Egypt, such as the lifting of an emergency law giving the president wide-ranging powers that has been in place for nearly three decades.
The letter refers to Obama's speech in Cairo, when he said, "I do have an unyielding belief that all people yearn for certain things: the ability to speak your mind and have a say in how you are governed."
"His speech in Cairo was well received," Ibrahim told NPR. "He talked the talk but has yet to walk the walk."
Now in exile in the U.S., Ibrahim was once jailed for "blowing the whistle" on Mubarak's attempts to groom his son to take over Egypt.
Ibrahim thinks its time for the Obama administration to talk about the issue. It is a topic that U.S. officials may not be able to avoid. Mubarak, 81, brought his son and possible successor Gamal with him on the trip.