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Mon 11 May 2009 01:28 AM

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Israeli PM to meet Mubarak for talks

Cairo's support sought over Iran's nuclear drive, despite deep differences on ME peace process.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu heads to Egypt on Monday to secure Cairo's support over the Iranian nuclear drive, despite their deep differences on the Middle East peace process.

The hawkish premier will meet Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in the Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh on his first trip abroad since being sworn in on March 31.

The visit also comes just one week before Netanyahu heads to Washington to meet US President Barack Obama, who has vowed to vigorously pursue peacemaking in the Middle East.

Netanyahu will try to secure Egypt's support for Israeli efforts to halt arch-foe Iran's nuclear drive, which the premier said he considers the main threat now faced by the Jewish state.

"Netanyahu will tell Mubarak that Israel and the moderate Arab states should act together in the face of the common threat posed by Iran, which is trying to acquire nuclear weapons and interfere in the region," a senior official told AFP.

Israel - widely considered to be the Middle East's sole if undeclared nuclear armed state - suspects Iran of trying to develop atomic weapons under the guise of a civilian nuclear programme, a charge Tehran has repeatedly denied.

"We both face common threats by Iran and its regional proxies. And we have common goals in strengthening regional stability and moving forward in the peace process," another senior official told AFP.

But Netanyahu's efforts are less than certain to succeed given the deep differences with Egypt on the Middle East peace process, which has been on ice since Israel's massive offensive on the Gaza Strip earlier this year.

Netanyahu has so far refused to publicly endorse the creation of a Palestinian state, a bedrock principle of international peace efforts to which Israel committed itself under the 2003 "roadmap" plan, saying that the Palestinian economy must improve before substantive talks on other issues.

Egypt has urged Netanyahu to clarify his stance on the two-state principle.

"It is important for the Israeli prime minister to express in a clear manner his acceptance of the principle of a two-state solution and the vital necessity of the creation of an independent Palestinian state," Foreign Minister Ahmed Abul Gheit said last week.

The creation of a Palestinian state constitutes "the primary aim of all the efforts exerted and the real guarantee for security and peace in the region," he said.

Israeli-Egypt ties have also been strained by Netanyahu's choice of foreign minister, the ultra-nationalist Avigdor Lieberman who last year said Mubarak could "go to hell" if he continued to refuse to visit the Jewish state.

Lieberman is not due to accompany Netanyahu on his trip to Sharm el-Sheikh, officials said.

The foreign minister has sparked international concern by saying the new cabinet was not bound by the US-backed decision by the previous government in November 2007 to relaunch negotiations with the Palestinians.

Netanyahu's trip to Egypt comes a week before he is due to meet Obama in Washington and to finally unveil his policy toward the Middle East peace process.

Netanyahu may also meet Jordanian King Abdullah II on Wednesday, officials said on Sunday.

In Egypt, Netanyahu and Mubarak are also expected to broach Cairo's efforts to broker a new ceasefire between Israel and the Islamist Hamas rulers of the Gaza Strip in the wake of Israel's devastating war in December-January.