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Mubarak, Sharon Discuss Easing Restrictions on Palestinians - 2002-07-16

Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak has spoken by telephone with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon about the current impasse in the Middle East peace process. The leaders talked a few hours before a high-level meeting on the Middle East crisis opens in New York.

Egypt's official news agency said President Mubarak underlined the urgent need for Israel to end its siege of West Bank towns and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat's Ramallah headquarters. He talked about the need for easing restrictions on the Palestinian territories to improve living conditions there.

The two men also discussed Mr. Mubarak's meeting Monday with Israel's defense minister and an earlier visit to Israel by Egypt's top security official.

The rare phone conversation comes one day after President Mubarak quipped to reporters that the only phone call he had received from Ariel Sharon had lasted a minute and a half.

Egypt was the first Arab country to sign a peace treaty with Israel in 1979 and has played an active role in the peace process. But consultations have decreased since the hard-line Likud Party leader Ariel Sharon was elected Israel's prime minister.

The Mubarak-Sharon telephone conversation took place a few hours before the so-called Middle East quartet meets in New York to look at ways to revive the stalled peace process. Secretary of State Colin Powell will hold talks with top officials from Russia, the United Nations, and the European Union. He will also meet later with the foreign ministers of Egypt, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia.

Mr. Powell is expected to renew the U.S. demand for broad reforms within the Palestinian Authority before peace talks resume. But he also is expected to review a three-year action plan for providing much-needed financial assistance to Palestinians. The Palestinian economy has been devastated by Israel's continuing occupation and destruction of the infrastructure during Israel's latest military incursions.

The Arab League has made similar appeals for help. An Arab League report says Secretary General Amr Moussa has urged the region's leaders to fulfill their financial pledges to help the Palestinians.

Arab leaders had agreed at their March summit to provide $330 million in monthly installments for six-months to help the Palestinian Authority meet its budget needs. So far, only 10 of the 21 Arab nations involved are reported to have paid their contributions.