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Olmert Says He Hopes for Peace Deal in 2008

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert was in Egypt Tuesday for talks with President Hosni Mubarak aimed at building Arab support for next week's peace conference in the U.S. state of Maryland. Mr. Olmert says he hopes the meeting will launch serious negotiations that will lead to a peace deal with the Palestinians by the end of next year. The two met in the Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh. VOA correspondent Challiss McDonough has more from Cairo.

The Israeli prime minister tried to strike a delicate balance, at once assuring Arab states that the meeting in Annapolis will be serious enough for them to take part, while also downplaying expectations of an immediate breakthrough. He said the meeting will launch serious negotiations toward a two-state solution.

Mr. Olmert said he hopes Israel and the Palestinians will reach a peace agreement in 2008.

He said the negotiations will not be simple, and after 60 years of fighting the sides will not be able to reach agreement in a week.

Mr. Olmert also said a peace agreement will not be implemented until the Palestinian government in the West Bank, led by the moderate Fatah faction, retakes control of the Gaza Strip, now controlled by the Islamic militant group Hamas.

At a joint news conference in Sharm el-Sheikh, President Mubarak offered Egypt's support for the talks and tried to reassure the skeptics.

Mubarak said, "Let us not say the negotiations will fail, let us wait and see what the meeting in Annapolis comes up with."

Most Arab states have been skeptical about the meeting. Arab League foreign ministers are to meet in Cairo later this week to coordinate their positions on the peace conference and decide whether to send a delegation to Annapolis, and if so, at what level.

Syria says it will only go if the issue of the Golan Heights is on the agenda.

Diplomats say states such as Saudi Arabia are concerned that the meeting will fail to address the thorny problems that have blocked past attempts at bringing peace to the Middle East. Those issues include the final borders of a Palestinian state, the status of Jerusalem, Israeli settlements in the West Bank and the so-called "right of return" for Palestinian refugees.

Prime Minister Olmert reached out to the Arab leaders and tried to reassure them that the talks will be substantive.

He said he wants to tell the whole Arab world that the negotiations will deal with all the main issues. He said, "We will not evade any problem."

He also praised the Arab peace initiative, which was re-launched earlier this year in Riyadh. It offers Israel normal relations with all Arab states in exchange for a return to the pre-1967 borders. Prime Minister Olmert said Israel takes it "very seriously."

He said he has no doubt that the initiative will play an important role in moving toward a settlement in the next year.

But Israel in the past has made clear that it intends to keep large parts of of Arab east Jerusalem, seized in 1967, and also several large Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank.

Mr. Olmert's talks with the Egyptian president also included the issue of weapons smuggling into the Gaza strip from Egypt, as well as the ongoing crisis between Hamas and Fatah in Gaza. Both leaders said any peace deal establishing a Palestinian state would have to include Gaza.