May 18, 1:16 PM EDT

Kerry, el-Sissi discuss stalled Arab-Israeli peace efforts


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Interview With Sen. John Kerry

CAIRO (AP) -- The United States and Egypt looked for ways Wednesday to inject life into Israel's moribund peace process with the Palestinians, after the Arab country's leader said an agreement would make warmer ties with the Jewish state possible.

On a brief visit to Cairo, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry also discussed with President Abdel-Fatah el-Sissi the major threats on both sides of Egypt's borders, including Syria, the Islamic State's stronghold, and Libya, potentially its next major battleground. But the Israeli-Palestinian crisis appeared a focus, given Egypt's leadership in promoting past negotiations and recent diplomatic activity.

Kerry "expressed his appreciation for the president's recent statement of strong support for advancing Arab-Israeli peace," State Department spokesman Mark Toner said. The American diplomat credited Egypt for its "role as a regional partner," but Toner's statement didn't elaborate on any specific Mideast peace effort afoot.

Kerry's stop came a day after he spoke by telephone to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and el-Sissi offered support for a French initiative to revive the peace process.

El-Sissi said Tuesday that Egypt's relations with Israel, rooted in their landmark 1979 peace treaty, can only be "warmer" if the Israelis reached a peace deal with the Palestinians. He pledged that Egypt would "make every effort" toward a solution.

France's proposal, which includes holding a Mideast peace conference, is struggling to gain traction. Israel already has rejected the idea.

But el-Sissi, the Arab leader who speaks most often to Netanyahu, is backing the offer as well as U.S. efforts, a 2002 Arab peace plan and the international Mideast peace quartet as possible avenues to such a settlement.

He said there was a "real opportunity" for peacemaking even if some Israelis don't think peace is necessary now given the region's turmoil. A deal, he said, would "give safety and stability to both sides. If this is achieved, we will enter a new phase that perhaps no one can imagine now."

In a statement, Netanyahu welcomed el-Sissi's "willingness to invest every effort to advance a future of peace and security between us and the Palestinians" and said Israel was ready to join Egypt and other Arab states in "advancing the peace process and stability in the region."

But Netanyahu has rejected the French initiative, saying direct negotiations are the only way to resolve the conflict. He has previously said the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative has some positive aspects, but can't be the basis for negotiations.

The Arab peace plan offers Israel full recognition by Arab states for Israel's withdrawal from territory captured in the 1967 Middle East war.

Kerry and el-Sissi also discussed U.S. help for Egypt's own counterterrorism fight, economic plans and how to strengthen democratic institutions. Despite Washington's closer ties with el-Sissi, it has regularly chided his government for crackdowns on free speech and freedom of assembly.

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Associated Press writer Bradley Klapper in Washington contributed.

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