- Egypt - Hamas - Israel - Middle East
Israeli President Shimon Peres is to meet his Egyptian counterpart Hosni Mubarak in Egypt on Thursday to discuss Middle East peace efforts and Cairo's bid to broker a prisoner swap with Hamas.
The two heads of state are to meet in the Red Sea resort town of Sharm el-Sheikh, where Peres, who unlike Mubarak holds a mainly ceremonial post, will be given a state welcome with full pomp and ceremony.
The two octogenarian presidents will discuss relations between the neighbouring states which signed the first ever Arab-Israeli peace treaty in 1979, a senior aide to Peres told AFP.
But the talks will likely focus on Egyptian attempts to broker a prisoner exchange between Israel and the Palestinian Islamist Hamas movement in Gaza to secure the release of Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, who was seized in a deadly raid in June 2006.
Egypt has in recent months assumed a crucial role in mediating between Hamas, which does not recognise the Jewish state, and Israel, which along with the United States and the European Union blacklists Hamas as a terrorist group.
Hamas has demanded that Israel release about 1,400 Palestinian prisoners, including hundreds who have been implicated in deadly attacks on Israelis, according to a senior Israeli defence official.
Israel and Hamas both agreed to an Egyptian-brokered truce in and around the Gaza Strip on June 19, ending months of fighting.
Although both sides have largely observed the agreement, little visible progress has so far been made in the talks on a prisoner exchange, with Israel voicing reluctance to free many of those demanded by Hamas.
Last week Peres said the indirect talks had been renewed.
"I welcome the renewed talks on returning Gilad Shalit but at the same time we must all remember that we are dealing with a crazy group of extremists who would not hesitate to trade humans for their own benefit," he said.
Peres and Mubarak will also discuss the state of the US-backed peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians that were relaunched last November with the ambitious goal of reaching a deal by the end of 2008, Peres's aide said.
The talks have in past weeks come to an apparent standstill, with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert resigning over corruption scandals and Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni struggling to form a new coalition to succeed him.