Egyptians, after meeting with Baker, accept U.S. plan for Mideast conference

April 11, 1991|By Mark Matthews | Mark Matthews,Sun Staff Correspondent

CAIRO, Egypt -- Egypt agreed last night to work toward the regional peace conference backed by the United States and Israel, provided that the parley can be arranged to reflect international participation.

Foreign Minister Esmat Abdel Meguid pulled back from Egypt's previous demand for a conference involving the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council.

"The common denominator between the two . . . is the word conference," Mr. Meguid said after a meeting between Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and Secretary of State James A. Baker III.

"In that respect I think we can certainly work on that conference, how it can be an instrument for the attainment of what we are working for, which is peace," Mr. Meguid said.

Cairo is Mr. Baker's first stop in trying to sell the Arab states on the idea of a conference involving the United States, the Soviet Union, Israel, Egypt, Syria, Saudi Arabia and five other Persian Gulf states and the Palestinians.

The U.S.-Israeli idea is that such a conference would open the way to direct talks between Israel and the Arab states and between Israel and the Palestinians.

If any of the Arab states were willing to go along, Egypt appeared to be the most likely, since it is the only Arab nation to have made peace with Israel.

Mr. Baker faces a much tougher job today when he meets with Syrian President Hafez el Assad.

To make the idea more palatable to the Arabs, Mr. Baker is keeping pressure on Israel to make concessions to the Palestinians.

A senior Bush administration official told reporters that he needed "at least one and maybe more than one" answer from Israel "in order to know that we have the potential here for possibly moving forward. And we're going to be continuing to work on it."

The official refused to identify the question but also said that he wanted a statement by Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir repudiating plans laid by right-wing Housing Minister Ariel Sharon to expand Jewish settlements in the occupied territories by 13,000 units.

The Egyptian foreign minister's stance last night was far more positive than his own reported comments on the U.S. plan earlier in the day and commentary in the semiofficial newspaper Al-Ahram.

He had said, "We support the international peace conference and back holding it under the umbrella of the United Nations, after good preparations."

Al-Ahram had spelled out Egypt's policy further, rejecting bilateral talks between Israel and individual Arab countries and calling for self-determination, including statehood, for Palestinians.

Rather than U.N. sponsorship, which Israel rejects, Mr. Baker proposes having the United States and the Soviet Union jointly sponsor the conference -- provided the Soviets first restore full diplomatic relations with Israel.

This would cut out China, Britain and France, which are less sympathetic toward Israel than is the United States.

Mr. Meguid indicated that Egypt was willing to finesse the U.N. role.

"If we can have the presence of an international representation that can really mean this conference is under international participation, I think Egypt would be willing to go along.

"We are open to any suggestion," he added. "What is more important for us is to move ahead on the solution of the Middle East process. We are not backing off from any of our positions. What is important is to achieve peace."

Israel's endorsement Tuesday of the regional conference idea put pressure on the Arabs to avoid appearing to be obstructing )) the process.

Arab leaders face a problem domestically in embracing an Israeli initiative without securing tangible gains for Palestinians.

Syria's official press showed deep suspicion about the plan in Damascus, insisting on an international conference and withdrawal of Israeli forces from the occupied territories.

It urged the world community "to use all means, including military action," to implement Security Council Resolutions 242 and 338, which call for Israel to withdraw from occupied territories in exchange for secure borders.

Israel has given no public sign that it is willing to yield territory for peace.

But a senior administration official said en route here, "I believe that there is a good chance that the parties to such a conference could perhaps agree that ultimately flowing from such a conference would be negotiations for a comprehensive settlement based on 242 and 338."

He noted, however, that Israel and the Arabs interpret the resolutions differently, with Israel insisting that they don't require withdrawal from all occupied land.

Mr. Baker, speaking to reporters alongside Mr. Meguid, was typically cautious.

"I remain hopeful that we can find a way to develop a process that can move us toward peace in the Middle East," he said, while noting that he confronted intractable problems.

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