CAIRO, Egypt -- Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak called yesterday for an end to the Arab economic boycott of Israel if the Jewish state freezes its settlements in occupied Arab lands.
"If Israel could suspend the building of settlements in the occupied territories, I believe that the Arab states should make a reciprocal concession by suspending the boycott," Mr. Mubarak said after talks with Secretary of State James A. Baker III in the ancient Mediterranean port city of Alexandria.
The Egyptian leader was repeating an earlier proposal by Mr. Baker to Arab and Israeli leaders that went nowhere. Earlier this week, Israeli officials reacted negatively after the leaders of the Group of Seven industrialized nations made the same proposal at their summit in London.
Mr. Mubarak's call was also unlikely to resonate widely elsewhere in the Middle East. The Arab League rejected the proposed exchange of confidence-building measures earlier this week. Egypt lifted its own boycott of Israel after signing a peace treaty with the Jewish state in 1978.
Nonetheless, Mr. Baker welcomed the support from the Egyptian leader, who has worked closely with the United States to persuade Syria and other Arab nations to join a peace conference with Israel co-sponsored by the United States and the Soviet Union.
"If steps like that could be taken . . . the mutual desire to improve the climate for negotiations between Israel and her Arab JTC neighbors are a follow-up objective of the peace conference that we have been seeking to arrange," Mr. Baker said.
Mr. Baker's stop in Egypt was the second of his latest peace shuttle through the Middle East. He arrived in Cairo armed with Syrian President Hafez el Assad's acceptance of President Bush's terms for the proposed peace conference.
Mr. Baker termed Mr. Assad's move "an extremely important and positive step" and called on Israel to follow suit when he meets in Jerusalem tomorrow with Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir.
Mr. Shamir and his Likud government have rejected key provisions of Mr. Bush's plan to convene the talks, and there were new indications from Israel that Mr. Baker could have little luck in changing his mind when they meet again tomorrow.
Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Arens warned that Syria's acceptance of the U.S. terms for the peace conference and the resulting international pressure on Israel would not sway the Jewish state.
"I can't imagine Baker will leave here with an agreement that will be acceptable to all the sides and that will bring about the calling of the meeting he is interested in having," Mr. Arens said in an newspaper interview published yesterday.
Foreign Minister David Levy, meanwhile, said he plans to scrutinize a Syrian letter to Mr. Bush that supports the U.S.-proposed regional peace conference.
On Thursday, Mr. Baker won Syrian approval for a U.S. formula for peace talks. Egypt has already agreed, and Mr. Baker is now seeking to enlist Jordan and Israel.
Under the plan, a regional conference under the auspices of the United States and the Soviet Union would lead to direct talks between Israel and Arab countries.
Israel opposes a proposed U.N. presence at the regional conference because it believes that the United Nations is pro-Arab. Israeli officials say that if the Arabs want direct negotiations, they don't need the U.N. involvement.
Mr. Baker was to fly to Jidda, Saudi Arabia, today for talks with Saudi King Fahd before traveling on to Jordan and then to Israel tomorrow.
The Arab boycott has been in effect since 1948, when the Arab world declared economic war on Israel at its birth. Since the early 1950s, a secondary boycott has targeted countries and companies that do business with Israel.