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Israeli-egyptian Tensions May Hurt Mideast Peace Process, Arens Warns

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The continuing coolness and deterioration of relations between Israel and Egypt could jeopardize chances for further progress in the Middle East peace process, Defense Minister Moshe Arens warned this week.

He demanded that President Hosni Mubarak meet with Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir, something the Egyptian leader has avoided for years.

Arens’ unexpected sharp comments on Egypt, the only Arab country with which Israel has diplomatic relations, came Tuesday during an appearance before the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee.

He made the remarks a day before the Egyptian-Israeli joint diplomatic-military committee was to hold its semiannual meeting in Herzliya. The committee was set up under the 1979 Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty to discuss bilateral issues regularly.

Israel is known to be upset by the 12-year prison sentence an Egyptian court gave a border policeman who killed four Israelis and wounded 23 in an ambush after crossing into Israel from Sinai last Nov. 25. It considers the penalty far too lenient.

Meanwhile, Shamir and Foreign Minister David Levy urged the United States to persevere in its Middle East peace initiative.

According to Shamir, who spoke to reporters at Dimona in the Negev, U.S. Secretary of State James Baker has no reason to be disappointed with his achievements so far, since it was anticipated that the process would be difficult.

In Washington, Baker met over lunch Wednesday with President Bush to brief him on his latest trip through the Middle East. State Department spokeswoman Margaret Tutwiler said the two would be discussing what “appropriate steps” to take next in the peace process.

When Baker left Jerusalem last Friday on news of his mother’s death, Tutwiler issued a statement blaming insufficient responses from Israel for his failure to get Israelis and Arabs to agree on a regional peace conference.

Levy told visiting politicians from the United States and Italy this week that it is unfair to blame Israel for Baker’s difficulties.

The Arabs have not even consented yet to direct talks with Israel, the foreign minister said. He defended Israel’s settlement-building in the West Bank during Baker’s peace mission, contradicting the U.S. view that the settlements are an obstacle to peace.

(JTA correspondent David Friedman in Washington contributed to this report.)

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