WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama won lavish praise from his Egyptian counterpart on Tuesday and spoke of an "extraordinary opportunity" for making peace in the Middle East, saying he was encouraged by U.S. efforts to restart talks between Israel and the Palestinians.
Seated next to President Hosni Mubarak, who was making his first visit to the U.S. capital in five years, Obama thanked his Egyptian counterpart for joining him in trying to construct a deal that has eluded world leaders for more than six decades.
Returning the compliment, Mubarak asserted that Obama's speech to the Muslim world — delivered in Cairo earlier this summer — had convinced Arabs the United States truly was an honest broker.
The 81-year-old Egyptian leader, who was estranged from the Bush administration, said Obama had "removed all doubts about the United States and the Muslim world."
Mubarak said, "The Islamic world had thought that the U.S. was against Islam, but his (Obama's) great, fantastic address there has removed all those doubts."
Obama's positive assessment of the peace effort was issued in response to a question about reports that Israel had stopped granting permission for new settlements in the West Bank, even though building in progress was continuing.
Obama has made a resumption of peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians one of his key foreign policy goals, hoping a breakthrough there would lead to wider agreements among the Jewish state and the Arab world.
To that end, Obama has demanded that the Israeli government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu freeze construction of Jewish settlements in East Jerusalem and the West Bank, land that the Palestinians want for a state. Netanyahu's public refusal has opened a rare rift between the traditionally close allies.
Nevertheless, Obama said: "The Israeli government has taken discussions with us very seriously." He said he was "encouraged by some of the things I am seeing on the ground."
"All parties," Obama said, "have to take steps to restart serious negotiations," including Palestinian efforts to end the incitement of violence against Israel.
Mubarak said an end to Jewish settlement activity was central to a resumption of Israeli-Palestinian talks and a wider improvement of ties among the Israelis and all of its Arab neighbors. Egypt made peace with Israel 30 years ago and Jordan, Israel's eastern neighbor that formerly controlled the West Bank, followed suit, but not until 1994.
Mubarak looked robust despite reports that he was growing increasingly frail and preparing his 46-year-old son, Gamal, as a successor.
Egypt has an exploding population, ravaged by widespread poverty and high unemployment.