By Anne E. Kornblut and Mary Beth Sheridan
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, August 19, 2009
Acknowledging that the Middle East peace process is in a "rut," President Obama nonetheless voiced confidence Tuesday that a breakthrough can be achieved -- and he thanked Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, whom he hosted for meetings at the White House, for playing a constructive role.
"There has been movement in the right direction," Obama said. "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."
Mubarak, addressing reporters alongside Obama, conveyed his willingness to aid the effort. "We are trying and working on this goal, to bring the two parties to sit together and to get something from the Israeli party and to get something from the Palestinian party. If we, perhaps, can get them to sit together, we will help," he said.
Mubarak and Obama's meeting, their third in three months, marked a significant departure from the previous administration -- when Mubarak and President George W. Bush divided over human rights and U.S. policy in the Middle East.
Tuesday's events reaffirmed that relations have become warmer. But it was unclear how much progress the two would make on their top priority: jump-starting the Middle East peace process.
Soliman Awaad, Mubarak's spokesman, said Obama told the Egyptian president that a blueprint for such a process should be ready next month. Next week, George J. Mitchell, the special U.S. envoy for Middle East peace, and Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu are scheduled to meet.
Obama has sought to persuade Arab nations to move forward with concessions to Israel but has found little success. Mubarak, in an interview published Monday, said it is up to Israel to take the next step. And he said he told Obama in June, at the time of the U.S. president's address in Cairo to the Muslim world, that Israel must stop the expansion of its settlements.
"Some Arab countries that exchanged representatives and trade offices might think of reopening these offices if Israel committed itself to stop settlement expansion and to resume final-status peace negotiations," Mubarak said in an interview with his country's state-controlled newspaper. Egypt and Jordan are the two Arab nations that have peace agreements with Israel.
Mubarak, who met with Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton on Monday, had a one-on-one meeting with Obama in the Oval Office, then joined a session involving other participants before a working lunch in the Cabinet Room.
In the Bush era, relations were strained over the U.S. push for democratic reforms in Egypt. Human rights groups say that country's authoritarian government detains people arbitrarily and puts them on trial in security courts that do not meet international standards for fairness.
The government also jails people for peacefully expressing opinions, the groups say.
State Department spokesman Philip J. Crowley told reporters after Mubarak's meeting with Clinton on Monday that the democracy and human rights situation in Egypt is "an ongoing source of concern to the United States" and added: "It is something that we raise in every high-level meeting that we have. We would like to see Egypt embark on a path to expand political dialogue in its country, expand political participation in the Egyptian political process."
Steven A. Cook, a Middle East expert at the Council on Foreign Relations, said it appears that the Obama administration does not want to view the U.S. relationship with Egypt mainly through the prism of democracy.
"I think there is an effort to see the relationship in broader terms, because the experience of looking at it through the straw hole of democracy and democracy promotion and reform proved damaging to the relationship," he said. "Let's be realistic -- Hosni Mubarak and the people in the regime don't really have an interest in reform."
After Obama met with the Egyptian leader, he held separate meetings with Clinton, who just returned from an 11-day trip to Africa, and former president Bill Clinton, who recently brought home two U.S. journalists who were jailed in North Korea. The latter meeting prompted Clinton's first trip to the White House since Obama took office.
Bill Clinton avoided reporters by taking a side entrance into his former residence. Hillary Clinton did not attend his session; a spokesman said she was scheduled to meet with the foreign minister of Colombia.