Egypt Offers to Help Israel, Arabs Resolve Where to Hold Direct Talks

If the flowering of peace is still a distant prospect, the Madrid conference has produced the first buds of hope that Arabs and Israelis can resolve their conflicts between themselves, with minimal prodding from outside the region.

That possibility emerged this week, when Egypt donned the role of intermediary between Israel and its partners in the three separate sets of bilateral talks: Syria, Lebanon and the combined Jordanian-Palestinian team.

The immediate problem of when and where the next bilateral meetings would take place was unresolved when the historic first round came to a close early Monday in Madrid.

Egypt has since volunteered to mediate between the parties to avoid intervention by Washington. Secretary of State James Baker told reporters at a briefing there Tuesday that if there is no agreement on a site in two weeks, “we will feel free to submit proposals.”

Egypt, the only Arab state that has diplomatic relations with Israel, could mediate through its embassy in Tel Aviv and the Israeli Embassy in Cairo.

Although Israelis have long complained that their peace with Egypt is a “cold” one, Cairo is now seen as an acceptable mediator of controversial issues because of its conduct in Madrid.

The Israelis were impressed by the angry reaction of President Hosni Mubarak to Syrian intransigence at the conference.

Mubarak and King Fahd of Saudi Arabia are credited with persuading Syria finally to meet face-to-face Sunday with the Israelis in Madrid. Although the encounter was described as “frigid,” it was nevertheless a historic breakthrough.

Israelis also appreciate the behavior of the Palestinian delegates, who abandoned their traditional reliance on Syria for an independent, constructive position of their own.

JORDAN READY TO NEGOTIATE

Israeli policy-makers are said to be quite willing to build on the good atmosphere of their first meeting with the Jordanian-Palestinian delegation to reach an understanding on the venue of future bilateral talks.

There are also hopeful signs from Amman.

Reliable sources there reported that Jordan is sincerely interested in settling its conflict with Israel. Jordanian Prime Minister Taher al-Masri is said to be very pleased with the first results in Madrid and is determined to go forward.

“We will not withdraw from the process that was started, in order not to lose the historic opportunity,” he said, adding that the face-to-face talks with the Israelis in Madrid broke down many barriers.

Arab-owned Radio Monte Carlo reported that the anti-peace Jordanian opposition, chiefly the Islamic fundamentalist groups, have lost their influence over the Jordanian masses because of an all-pervasive desire for peace.

The Israeli daily Ma’ariv reported that a public opinion poll taken in Amman this week showed that 53 percent of the population is cautiously optimistic about peace, compared with 40 percent who are pessimistic.

On the other hand, there is persistent resistance to peace in some Jordanian quarters. The Jordanian Journalists Association sharply reprimanded one of its members who allowed himself to be interviewed by Israel Television in Madrid, according to the daily Yediot Achronot.

“We are shocked by the premature normalization,” said the group’s chairman, Fathi Kawar.

On the diplomatic level, however, the man who headed the Jordanian delegation in Madrid, Abdel Salam al-Majali, expressed regret in a Cairo daily that Jordan did not go along with the initiative of the late Egyptian President Anwar Sadat, who made peace with Israel 14 years ago.

In Jerusalem, meanwhile, the Knesset, devoting Wednesday’s session to the Madrid conference, was supportive of the government’s conduct.

The left and right wings were at odds as usual. Most significant, however, was the appearance of Foreign Minister David Levy, who appears to have patched up his differences with Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir.

Levy was angered and humiliated when Shamir announced shortly before the Madrid opening that he would personally head the Israeli delegation. Levy, who had expected to lead the delegation, stayed home, and his long-troubled relations with Shamir reached their nadir.

But after private meetings with Shamir, Levy seemed mollified, at least for the moment.

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