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Israel's Peres Calls Settlement Building 'Marginal Issue'

Israel's President Shimon Peres has called Israeli settlement building in occupied territory a "marginal issue" that he says became a central issue for the wrong reasons

The presidents of Egypt and Israel met in Cairo for talks about the current state of Middle East peace negotiations.

Both Egypt's veteran President Hosni Mubarak and longtime Israeli statesman President Shimon Peres pleaded for peace, insisting that it remained possible, despite the many existing conflicts and contentions. Both urged stalled peace negotiations resume as quickly as possible.

In a joint press conference, the presidents expressed the positions of their respective governments.

Mr. Mubarak explained the Arab side wants Israel to halt settlement activity, especially in Jerusalem, and that talks must pick up where they left off, last May.

Peace, he stressed, must give Palestinians an independent state, within a definite time-frame, and partial solutions or temporary borders are not an answer.

The Egyptian president urged Israeli leaders to "take the courageous step" of making peace. He also encouraged Israel to "lift its blockade of Gaza, remove barriers on the West Bank, and allow Palestinians to move more freely."

Israeli President Peres praised Mr. Mubarak for his responsibility in "keeping the peace and respecting (past) agreements for 25 years," and said that "many young Egyptians and many young Israelis owe their lives to his leadership and will for peace."

Mr. Peres also answered Mr. Mubarak's demand Israel halt settlement activity.

"The sooner we shall start to negotiate, the issue of settlements will disappear, because once we shall have agreed borders, there wont be any problems and we have to reach it by agreement. We are ready to negotiate, and we are looking for a solution," Mr. Peres said.

The Israeli leader said Jerusalem is now under Israeli sovereignty, but even it "could be part of a settlement ... if it is agreed upon (by both sides)."

He stressed it is impossible to reach an agreement without sitting down at the negotiating table first.

"There are more solutions than problems," Mr. Peres said. "Please let us become more constructive and positive. Let us not try to agree and then have negotiations. Let us negotiate and agree."

Relations between Egypt and Israel took a serious turn for the worse after conflict broke out between Israel and the Palestinian Hamas movement last December in Gaza. The election of conservative Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, in February, caused relations to deteriorate further.

The Israeli and Arab press report that talks to free captive Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, held by Hamas since June 2006, are "reaching their final stage." In the past, Israel has sought Egyptian aid in mediating a deal to free Shalit, and while the issue may have been discussed in private, neither men mentioned it in public.