Israel, Palestinians Loom As Obama Meets Mubarak

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President Obama met with his Egyptian counterpart, Hosni Mubarak, and said he is encouraged by progress in efforts to bring Israel and the Palestinians back to the negotiating table. Mubarak said Arab states were prepared to help if the two sides resumed peace talks.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

And I'm Melissa Block.

President Obama says he's seeing some encouraging signs as he tries to revive Israeli-Palestinian peace talks. That was a central theme of Mr. Obama's meeting at the White House today with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, as NPR's Michele Kelemen reports.

MICHELE KELEMEN: President Obama says Egypt is uniquely placed to help jump-start Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. And he's clearly looking toward Hosni Mubarak to nudge Arab states to make some gestures to Israel. Mr. Obama says it will take courageous leaders on all sides.

President BARACK OBAMA: If all sides are willing to move off of the rut that we're in currently, then I think there is an extraordinary opportunity to make real progress. But we're not there yet. I'm encouraged by some of the things that I'm seeing on the ground.

KELEMEN: He said Israel has removed some checkpoints in the West Bank, and has been serious in negotiations with the U.S. on the issue of Jewish settlements. And the president said Palestinian security forces have improved. As for what Arab states can do, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak said they will help. But he made clear, through an interpreter, that serious negotiations on the so-called final status issues have to start soon.

President HOSNI MUBARAK (Egypt): (Through Translator) If negotiations start, this will lead to the Arab state to support the peace process and to move it forward, because I can tell you that the Arab people are fed up with the length that this issue has taken, and the issue of the displaced people. So I believe if the two parties sit down, this will lead to have Arab state support moving the peace process forward.

KELEMEN: This was Mubarak's third meeting with President Obama, but his first trip to Washington since 2004. He had a testy relationship with the Bush administration over the war in Iraq and the U.S. focus, at least rhetorically, on democracy promotion in the Middle East. Mubarak's spokesman says the democracy issue was discussed today but among friends, not in a lecturing tone.

(Soundbite of protest)

Unidentified People: (unintelligible)

KELEMEN: Outside the White House, a small group of protesters tried to highlight Egypt's dismal human rights record. Most came to demand more protection for Coptic Christians and other minorities. An Egyptian dissident, Saad Eddin Ibrahim, was here to try to keep the democracy issue from sliding off the Obama administration's agenda entirely.

Dr. SAAD EDDIN IBRAHIM (Egyptian Dissident): We are very worried that because of expediency and possibly Jew strategic objectives elsewhere, that the issue of democracy and human rights will be sacrificed.

KELEMEN: He says Obama administration officials have assured him that they raise his case privately. But he's not the only one facing legal problems simply for criticizing Mubarak's government.

Dr. IBRAHIM: Even though after my acquittal, they keep filing cases against me - that is draining my resources, draining me psychologically and physically -and they are doing that with every dissident.

KELEMEN: President Obama said nothing on that topic in his brief public appearance with President Mubarak at the White House today. But the 81-year-old Egyptian leader said the two men did talk about political reforms that Mubarak promised. He said he still has two more years of this term to carry out those reforms.

Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington.

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