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Rabin Visit to Cairo Heralds New Chapter in Ties with Egypt

Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin’s one-day visit here Tuesday appears to have breathed new life into Israeli-Egyptian relations, which have shown few signs of vitality in recent years.

Rabin’s lengthy summit meeting with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, the first in six years between the leaders of the two countries, did not produce any immediate breakthroughs.

But it went a long way toward warming a relationship that has been tepid since the two nations signed a peace treaty 13 years ago.

Rabin called the visit a “turning point” that had produced a “completely new atmosphere” in Israeli-Egyptian relations.

That change was evident when Mubarak took the opportunity at a joint news conference with Rabin to praise the new prime minister’s “genuine support for peace.”

It was a far cry from Mubarak’s past remarks about Rabin’s predecessor, Yitzhak Shamir, whom the Egyptian president had said he had no interest in meeting as long as the Likud leader had “nothing to deliver.”

The Egyptian position was summarized bluntly by Mubarak’s top aide, Osama el-Baz.

“At last, there’s someone (in Israel) whom we can talk to,” he told reporters. “We know that Rabin is tough and there won’t be agreement on everything. But at least we share the same common goal.”

The meeting with Rabin, just one week after he took office, was a clear indication that Egypt feels the Labor Party leader has something to deliver. Mubarak even mentioned that Egypt is “not asking for miracles.”

But there were other indications of the improved atmosphere between the two countries in the aftermath of Labor’s sweeping electoral victory four weeks ago.

For one, Rabin was received at Cairo’s international airport with a full red carpet ceremony, with the national anthems of both countries played. On hand to greet him was Egyptian Prime Minister Atef Sidki.

AN INVITATION TO VISIT ISRAEL

The Israeli prime minister’s seven-hour visit included a 90-minute private meeting with Mubarak, followed by a luncheon with their aides that was served by white-gloved waiters in the ornate French colonial palace in Heliopolis.

While in the country, Rabin laid a wreath at the tomb of the late Egyptian President Anwar Sadat and paid an emotional, if fleeting, visit to the Shaare Shamayim synagogue in downtown Cairo, where Egypt’s remnant population of mainly elderly Jews still worships.

The possibility of a reciprocal visit by Mubarak was raised when Rabin extended an invitation. But while the Egyptian leader accepted in principle, he politely indicated that in practice, no trip was planned in the foreseeable future.

“Mr. Rabin invited me,” Mubarak told the news conference, “but frankly speaking, I need no invitation. Whenever I find it convenient, I will go to Israel.” He stressed, though, that “my response is positive to Mr. Rabin.”

Egyptian Foreign Minister Amre Moussa told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency that he, on the other hand, was likely to visit Israel “in the near future.” And other high-level visits are expected as the relations between the two countries warm up.

In their private conversation and again at the luncheon with their aides, Mubarak is understood to have tried to persuade Rabin not to neglect Israel’s bilateral negotiations with Syria.

“Syria is interested in reaching a settlement with you,” the Egyptian president is said to have told the Israeli leader.

Rabin replied that Israel, too, is interested in tackling all components of a peace agreement with Syria.

But he noted pointedly that progress was hampered by incidents such as the armed attack in southern Lebanon on Monday by Hezbollah guerrillas, who managed to kill an Israeli soldier and wound five others.

Even if Syria is not directly behind each and every attack in southern Lebanon, Rabin said, “there is no doubt that Damascus has it in its power to restrain these hostile elements.”

PEACE TALKS IN CAIRO?

Israeli officials said Mubarak clearly had taken note of Rabin’s comments, which they presumed he would transmit to Syrian President Hafez Assad when the two meet in Damascus this weekend.

Mubarak also appeared to express interest in moving the bilateral peace talks to Cairo, when the idea was floated at his joint news conference with Rabin.

“Look, we have no objection to that, if all the parties are ready,” the Egyptian leader said. “Whenever they want to come here for negotiations, they are welcome. If they want to go to any other place, that is their business.”

Rabin pointed out that “at the present time, we are committed to go to Rome,” the site that the United States selected after Israel requested the talks be moved from Washington to a destination closer to the Middle East.

But the prime minister added that Israel “would welcome an arrangement at a later date whereby the bilateral talks would be held in Egypt.”

During the news conference, Mubarak also praised Rabin’s pledge to curtail settlement activity in the administered territories, indicated he had no problem with the United States guaranteeing billions of dollars of loans for Israel and called for a suspension of the Arab boycott against Israel in return for a settlement freeze.

He called Rabin’s public position on the future of the settlements “a good step on the right track, which we appreciate. Yet we need much more,” he continued. “But we leave it to him now.”

On the loan guarantees, Mubarak said, “I do not interfere any more in this.” He added that it was up to the United States and Israel to reach an agreement concerning the settlements.

(JTA correspondent Gil Sedan in Jerusalem contributed to this report.)

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