SHARM EL-SHEIKH, Egypt (Reuters) - An Israeli raid into the West Bank town of Ramallah cast a shadow over an Israeli-Egyptian summit on Thursday, bringing to the surface the differences between the old peace partners.
Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert sparred in public at a testy news conference after their talks — over the Ramallah raid and over a proposal for a four-way summit bringing in Palestinian and Jordanian leaders.
Mubarak told Olmert that Israel should not set conditions for peace talks with the Palestinians and should negotiate regardless of rocket attacks by militant groups in Gaza.
Olmert brought up Israel’s demand for tougher Egyptian action against arms and money smuggling across the border into Gaza. Mubarak said Egyptian law allowed the passage of money and Egypt would not hesitate to intercept weapon shipments.
The summit in the Egyptian Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh appeared to make a bad start after Israeli forces mounted a rare raid into Ramallah, the seat of the Palestinian Authority, killing three Palestinians and detaining four wanted men.
Mubarak said: “I expressed to the prime minister our indignation at what happened today in Ramallah and said that Israel and all the people in the region will achieve peace only by refraining from all practices which obstruct its course.”
Olmert said he apologized if innocent people were injured in the Israeli raid but defended the operation in principle.
“One must remember that Israel must take measures to prevent terrorists from harming Israeli citizens... during the operation, there were shots fired at Israeli soldiers and I am sorry to say events unfolded in an unforeseen fashion,” he said.
Olmert avoided a question on whether Israel favored the proposed summit meeting with Mubarak, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and King Abdullah of Jordan.
He said he had already met all three leaders over the past few weeks. “Of course, any meeting, with any line-up, can contribute to strengthening ties, improving the atmosphere and promoting the chances of serious and responsible negotiations between the Palestinians and us,” Olmert said.
“That doesn’t prevent there being a four-way meeting to endorse the essence of those positions,” Mubarak added.
The two leaders, at their second meeting in Egypt since Olmert took office a year ago, showed different perspectives on how to resume peace talks, which collapsed in 2001.
Mubarak dismissed Olmert’s argument that the presence of the Islamist group Hamas in the Palestinian cabinet was an obstacle.
“Then try with the Palestinian Authority. It is the one delegated for this,” he said, turning the news conference into a direct dialogue between himself and his guest.
“In Egypt here, when (late President Anwar) Sadat signed the peace treaty, there were elements who did not agree to the peace agreement, but peace happened, with the majority of votes, almost by consensus, because peace is life,” he added.
Mubarak also played down the significance of the rockets which Palestinian militants fire into Israel, provoking Israel into reprisals and straining a tentative ceasefire.
“These Qassam rockets. They’ll fire them every other day. Shall we stop the peace process because one or two individuals fire rockets? We must proceed with the peace process,” he said.
Olmert and Mubarak said they had talked about Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, who has been held in Gaza since June and who is at the center of negotiations of an exchange for hundreds of Palestinians in Israeli jails.
Mubarak said he hoped for an early agreement. Olmert added: “I can’t reveal any more on this issue, as Gilad Shalit is still being held by elements that do not want to recognize Israel or hold talks with it.”
Before the summit opened, Egypt blamed Palestinian indecision for a lack of apparent progress toward an Israeli-Palestinian prisoner exchange.
Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit told Reuters: “They (the Palestinians) are the ones holding the Israeli soldier. Israel wants this soldier. Israel is offering some measures. What is needed today is for the Palestinian side ... to decide.”
Additional reporting by Aziz El-Kaissouni