UNITED NATIONS (Oct. 2)
Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak told Yitzhak Shamir on the telephone Friday that he would like to see him continue to head the Israeli government.
The telephone call to the Israeli prime minister was made during a meeting between Mubarak and Israeli Foreign Minister Moshe Arens.
Arens told reporters that calling Shamir at home was Mubarak’s idea.
The Israeli foreign minister said he agreed that the phone call was a good suggestion, “and I just happened to have Shamir’s telephone number in my pocket,” he said.
Arens reported that the Egyptian and Israeli leaders had a friendly conversation that lasted five to seven minutes.
“Mubarak wished him a happy new year and asked him what kind of food he was eating,” Arens said at a briefing he held following his meeting with Mubarak.
Shamir’s office confirmed that he had spoken by telephone to Mubarak on Friday. The call was friendly and ended with Mubarak saying “see you soon,” said Shamir’s spokesman, Yossi Ahimeir.
But no date for a meeting between the two men was fixed or even discussed, he said, contrary to news reports that the two had agreed in principle to a rendezvous.
Nevertheless, the call appears to have helped to break down a barrier between the Egyptians and Israel’s Likud bloc. Likud members, notably Arens, had been openly unhappy about Mubarak’s refusal to take part in a meeting with Shamir without preconditions.
SHAMIR MAY BACK CAIRO TALKS
Speaking to reporters after the Mubarak meeting, Arens sounded far more receptive toward Mubarak’s proposal that Egypt serve as a host for talks between Israelis and Palestinians than he had during the rest of his week-long stay in New York.
Arens said that he discussed with the Egyptian president the agenda of an Israeli-Palestinian meeting should such a meeting materialize. He stressed that the only issue covered in such a meeting should be “elections and only elections.”
In Jerusalem, a senior aide to Shamir said Monday that the prime minister is willing to have the preliminary talks in Cairo, as long as they are based on Israel’s peace initiative, and not Mubarak’s 10-point plan to advance it.
Yosef Ben-Aharon, director general of the Prime Minister’s Office, said on Israel Radio’s English-language news program that the chief problem with what he called the “Egyptian and American counterproposals” is that they seem to ignore Israel’s proposed two-stage process and seek to reach a permanent solution immediately.
The Israeli plan calls for negotiations first on Palestinian self-rule in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, and then, after a confidence-building period of three to five years, talks on the final status of the territories. The Palestinian negotiators would be chosen in elections.
The Egyptians and Americans are trying to discard the interim period, Ben-Aharon complained. He noted that according to the Egyptian plan, everything has to be accomplished in one phase.
Egypt has proposed that the talks center around its 10-point plan. Seven of the points deal with the specifics surrounding Palestinian elections in the West Bank and Gaza, but three points concern the ultimate resolution of the conflict.
News reports in Israel hint that the Bush administration is exerting indirect pressure on Shamir and the Likud to emulate the Labor Party’s willingness to accept the Egyptian proposals as a basis for preliminary talks.
DISAPPOINTMENT OVER MUBARAK SPEECH
Israel’s formal position on the Egyptian ideas is to be decided at what could be a fateful session of the Inner Cabinet on Thursday. The Inner Cabinet, consisting of five Likud and five Labor ministers, is the government’s top policy-making body.
Arens said that a key part of his conversation Friday with Mubarak was an explanation of how the Israeli political system works and about the danger of a coalition crisis. He said Mubarak believes, as does the United States, that “to enhance the peace process, a unity government is needed.”
Arens himself said he hoped a coalition crisis would be averted. “If reason will prevail, the government will continue to function,” he said.
While Arens expressed guarded optimism over his conversation with Mubarak, his reaction to the Egyptian president’s address to the United Nations General Assembly on Friday was more subdued.
An Israeli official here said that the Israelis were relatively disappointed with Mubarak’s speech. The official noted that Mubarak did not mention Israeli’s peace initiative, nor even his own 10-point plan.
He said the Israelis also were unhappy with the fact that in his speech, Mubarak called the Palestine Liberation Organization the “sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people.”
If Egypt believes that the PLO truly represents the Palestinians, the official said, “then what’s the point of the election plan that he supposedly endorsed?”
In his address, Mubarak also said that the Israeli-Palestinian dialogue “should be followed by steps” leading to an international peace conference, “in order that a final comprehensive settlement to the dispute can be reached.”
(JTA correspondent David Landau in Jerusalem contributed to this report.)