News Analysis; U.S. and Israel Looking to Egypt to Help Break Peace Plan Deadlock

Both Israel and the United States appear to be looking toward President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt to rescue the Middle East peace process.

Speculation here is rife about a possible summit meeting between Mubarak and Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir.

According to unconfirmed media reports, President Bush suggested such a meeting in a message to Mubarak, conveyed last week when Bush met at the White House with Egyptian Foreign Minister Esmat Abdel Meguid.

The U.S. president’s strategy was said to be to get Mubarak to influence the Israelis to soften their opposition to the U.S. proposal for Israeli-Palestinian negotiations on the Israeli peace plan.

News of the message, first reported by the Arabic-language Radio Monte Carlo, came from sources in the Egyptian Foreign Ministry. That was seen -as an indication …that Mubarak was seriously considering a meeting with Shamir.

In Washington, the State Department said Monday that it was unaware of the Radio Monte Carlo report. A White House official confirmed that there had been “an exchange of views” on the subject, but no message conveyed to Mubarak.

But in recent days, Shamir, too, has given credence to the idea of a summit with Mubarak. He told a group of German journalists Sunday that “not only the United States, but also Egypt could play an important role in the promotion of the peace process.”

SHAMIR PRAISES MUBARAK

The Israeli leader said it was in Egypt’s best interest not to remain the only Arab state that has made peace with Israel.

Meeting Monday with a delegation from the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the pro-Israel lobbying group in Washington, Shamir again suggested Mubarak could act with Israel “to stabilize the area and to advance peace.”

He praised the Egyptian president’s leadership, observing that Mubarak is “so popular in his own country and with the rest of the Arab world” that he could help guide the region to a peace settlement.

Mubarak has said in the past that he would meet with Shamir only if there were “substantive progress in the peace process.” Now he may be reversing the order, on the understanding that a meeting itself would advance the process.

Shamir has good reason to want a summit with Mubarak. From a public relations point of view it would give his right-wing government the appearance of extricating Israel from the current stalemate.

Diplomatically, a Shamir-Mubarak summit would shift attention away from the Israeli-Palestinian dialogue sought by Washington. It might also divert the Americans from reviving the idea of an international peace conference, which Israel rejects.

Swedish Foreign Minister Sten Andersen told a visiting group of Israeli leftists in Stockholm last week that U.S. Secretary of State James Baker had told him the Bush administration was losing patience with Israel and would give it only limited time to agree to Baker’s formula for a dialogue with the Palestinians.

Baker reportedly told Andersen that if Israel’s response was not sufficiently affirmative, he would propose an international conference.

ARAFAT TO MEET WITH MUBARAK

That report matched strong indications in Jerusalem that Washington is dissatisfied with Shamir’s June 28 reply to a letter from Bush asking whether Israel was prepared to accept the Baker proposal for preliminary peace talks.

The talks are aimed at hammering out the modalities of elections that Israel has proposed to hold in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Those elected would negotiate with Israel on limited Palestinian self-rule and eventually the final status of the territories.

Shamir’s letter expressed Israel’s continued support for the peace plan. But it rejected the idea of holding preliminary talks with a delegation that would include Arabs with residency in East Jerusalem or Palestinians deported from the territories, as Baker has proposed.

In Washington, State Department spokeswoman Margaret Tutwiler said Monday that the United States would be responding to the Shamir letter “in some shape, fashion or form,” but she declined to say how or when.

Meanwhile, Palestine Liberation Organization leader Yasir Arafat may have sensed that closer contacts between Egypt and Israel are imminent.

The Kuwaiti newspaper A-Siassa reported Sunday that Arafat will visit Cairo “within a few days” to brief Mubarak on the mood in the PLO after the U.S. suspension of its dialogue with the PLO last month. Arafat also is to be briefed on Meguid’s meetings in Washington.

(JTA correspondent Howard Rosenberg in Washington contributed to this report.)

NEXT STORY