Image: Obama, Mubarak
Pablo Martinez Monsivais  /  AP
President Barack Obama and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak appear for photos Tuesday in the Oval Office of the White House.
updated 8/18/2009 6:18:34 PM ET 2009-08-18T22:18:34

President Barack Obama won lavish praise from his Egyptian counterpart on Tuesday and spoke of an "extraordinary opportunity" for making peace in the Middle East, saying he was encouraged by U.S. efforts to restart talks between Israel and the Palestinians.

Seated next to President Hosni Mubarak, who was making his first visit to the U.S. capital in five years, Obama thanked his Egyptian counterpart for joining him in trying to construct a deal that has eluded world leaders for more than six decades.

Returning the compliment, Mubarak asserted that Obama's speech to the Muslim world — delivered in Cairo earlier this summer — had convinced Arabs the United States truly was an honest broker.

The 81-year-old Egyptian leader, who was estranged from the Bush administration, said Obama had "removed all doubts about the United States and the Muslim world."

Mubarak said, "The Islamic world had thought that the U.S. was against Islam, but his (Obama's) great, fantastic address there has removed all those doubts."

Obama's positive assessment of the peace effort was issued in response to a question about reports that Israel had stopped granting permission for new settlements in the West Bank, even though building in progress was continuing.

Obama has made a resumption of peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians one of his key foreign policy goals, hoping a breakthrough there would lead to wider agreements among the Jewish state and the Arab world.

To that end, Obama has demanded that the Israeli government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu freeze construction of Jewish settlements in east Jerusalem and the West Bank, land that the Palestinians want for a state. Netanyahu's public refusal has opened a rare rift between the traditionally close allies.

Restarting negotiations
Nevertheless, Obama said: "The Israeli government has taken discussions with us very seriously." He said he was "encouraged by some of the things I am seeing on the ground."

"All parties," Obama said, "have to take steps to restart serious negotiations," including Palestinian efforts to end the incitement of violence against Israel.

Obama took pains to include references to needed steps not only from Israel but also the Palestinians and the larger Arab world.

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"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," Obama said.

Mubarak said an end to Jewish settlement activity was central to a resumption of Israeli-Palestinian talks and a wider improvement of ties among the Israelis and all of its Arab neighbors. Egypt made peace with Israel 30 years ago and Jordan, Israel's eastern neighbor that formerly controlled the West Bank, followed suit, but not until 1994.

Mubarak took a traditionally tough stand about the thorny issues that still must be settled between Israel and the Palestinians, saying he had told the Israelis that they must "forget temporary solutions and forget about temporary borders."

The Arabs, backing a long-standing peace offer from Saudi Arabia, have said they were willing to recognize Israel and make peace if the Jewish state returns to borders as they existed before the 1967 war. Israel annexed all of Jerusalem and captured the West Bank during that conflict.

'Very good' Egypt-U.S. relations
Mubarak looked robust despite reports that he was growing increasingly frail and preparing his 46-year-old son, Gamal, as a successor.

Egypt has an exploding population, ravaged by widespread poverty and high unemployment. The Egyptian president, who has ruled the country for 28 years, has kept a lid on Egypt's burgeoning social and fundamentalist Islamic religious pressures through heavy repression of much of the political opposition in Egypt. He has been particularly tough on the Islamic fundamentalist Muslim Brotherhood, the most organized group challenging his rule.

Mubarak had been a regular visitor to Washington during the Clinton administration. Then he stayed away to protest the U.S. invasion of Iraq and President George W. Bush's intensified pressure to open the Egyptian political system and moderate its human rights policies.

But that was in the past, Mubarak said.

"Relations between us and the United States are very good relations and strategic relations. And despite some of the hopes that we had with previous administrations, this did not change the nature of our bilateral relations."

Both leaders said they had talked about reforming Egypt's political system, but Obama has been far less vocal publicly — an obvious bid to lower the temperature in relations with the Middle East's most populous Arab country. Mubarak's fulsome praise of Obama suggested the strategy was paying benefits.

'Game-changing' possibility
U.S. critics, however, insist that Obama must not relent in pressuring Mubarak on reform.

On Iran, one of the largest and most complicated foreign challenges facing Obama, Mubarak said he and Obama talked at length about concerns that Tehran is trying to build a nuclear weapon.

Mubarak — like Obama, the Israeli leadership and many Arab countries — sees a nuclear-armed Iran as a "game-changing" possibility that could upend the power balance in the Middle East.

While noting they confronted the issue, neither leader indicated how they intend to move forward.

Obama has sought to establish a dialogue with the Iranians but has set a September deadline for Tehran's Islamic leadership to respond.

A next U.S. step would center on efforts to enforce tougher U.N. sanctions aimed at punishing Iran economically and further isolating the Islamic regime, which claims it is developing the technology for nuclear generation of electricity, not a bomb.

Israel has spoken openly of a military attack on Iran's nuclear facilities but is widely believed to have agreed to stand down to give the U.S. policy time to work.

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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