Egypt's president meets Palestinian counterpart

July 18, 2012 - 4:39 PM
Mideast Egypt Palestinians

Palestinian Foreign Minister Riad Maliki, left, negotiator Saeb Erakat, second left, and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, center, meet with Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi, right, at the presidential palace in Cairo, Egypt, Wednesday, July 18, 2012. (AP Photo/Maya Alleruzzo)

CAIRO (AP) — Egypt's new president hosted the Western-backed Palestinian president Wednesday, avoiding preferential treatment toward the rival Hamas, the Gaza branch of his own Muslim Brotherhood.

The meeting indicated that President Mohamed Morsi wanted to avoid appearing to favor one Palestinian faction over another.

Egypt's state news agency MENA reported that Morsi is scheduled to meet Hamas political chief Khaled Mashaal in Cairo on Thursday.

According to MENA, Morsi and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas discussed Palestinian reconciliation, peace talks with Israel and issues relating to the Gaza-Egypt border crossing.

Abbas told reporters after the meeting that "the doors of the political process with Israel are shut" and that the two sides were not holding bilateral talks.

Palestinian reconciliation is seen as essential to allowing the Palestinians to speak with a single voice in possible future peace negotiations.

Egypt's intelligence services brokered a reconciliation pact in May 2011 that was supposed to end a four-year rift that has divided the territories envisioned for a future Palestinian state. But the agreement has not been implemented, with both sides unwilling to concede power. Hamas has ruled Gaza for five years after winning in elections there and later expelling forces loyal to Abbas.

Abbas and Mashaal may meet in Cairo Thursday, said Hamas spokesman Ezzat al-Rishiq.

Morsi has pledged to change Egypt's policies from those of ousted President Hosni Mubarak, who preferred the Western-backed Fatah of Abbas and saw Hamas as a threat.

Morsi has signaled, though, that there will not be radical changes in policy anytime soon. He has pledged to honor all past agreements, a statement meant to reassure the West that he will adhere to Egypt's 1979 peace treaty with Israel.

The peace accord is a cornerstone of U.S. policy in the region. Washington provides about $1.3 billion annually in military aid to Egypt as part of that deal.

Egypt's military council, led by Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi, Mubarak's defense minister of 20 years, also still holds considerable powers despite Morsi's win last month. Just before his inauguration, the generals stripped the presidency of many powers and kept them for themselves.

In Cairo Wednesday, the head of U.S. Central Command, Gen. James Mattis, met with Tantawi.

Details of the meeting were not disclosed.

A U.S. military official said Mattis met separately with Egypt's military chief of staff, Sami Anan. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to release the information.

The Egyptian military has maintained close ties with Israeli military intelligence over the years.

Hamas was jubilant over Morsi's election in neighboring Egypt last month, hoping the Egyptian leader would lift years of travel and trade restrictions that have hit Palestinians in the Gaza Strip hard.

Egypt's continued role in the blockade on Gaza is deeply unpopular in Egypt. Israel controls access by air and sea to Gaza and controls land crossings except the one linking Gaza with Egypt. Israel limits Gaza imports and exports, citing rockets and mortar shells fired from Gaza. Three years ago, Israel killed hundreds of Gaza residents in a war meant to stop the rockets.

Morsi's Brotherhood has suggested allowing more Palestinians and aid to flow through the Gaza-Egypt border crossing, but has not given support for a regular trade route. Israeli officials insist there is no change in their policy of isolating Gaza.

Speaking to reporters on Friday, Morsi said his administration will not pick sides between rival Palestinian factions.

"We have said before that we stand at equal distance from all Palestinian factions," he said. "We support and aid them and are always happy to help in reconciliation."