Egypt's president huddles with Israeli prime minister

August 01, 1994|By Doug Struck | Doug Struck,Sun Staff Correspondent

TABA, Egypt -- It is an extraordinary scene: the president of Egypt flitting about the Middle East, then huddling here yesterday with the premier of Israel to give him a progress report on Israeli-Arab matchmaking.

The public statements are full of hints and evasions, but the succession of quick, high-level meetings recently shows that the Middle East peace process has been raised to a new level of activity.

News conferences now are peppered not so much with questions about whether peace treaties will be signed, but whether they will be signed by the end of this year.

Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak dropped more hints yesterday in his meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin at this Red Sea resort. He suggested that Syrian President Hafez el Assad "is much more flexible, and he wants peace" with Israel.

"The Syrians are very keen on peace," he said.

Mr. Mubarak offered his assessment after a quick flight last week to see the Syrian head of state and key holdout in the sequence of Arab-Israeli embraces.

The Egyptian president also flew over to Saudi Arabia Saturday to talk to King Fahd about the peace process before flying to Taba to meet with Mr. Rabin. The Israeli prime minister himself was barely back from Washington, where he and Jordan's King Hussein publicly ended their countries' state of war last Monday.

Mr. Mubarak and Mr. Rabin spoke optimistically about the next shuttle round by U.S. Secretary of State Warren M. Christopher, which Mr. Mubarak said will begin in the region next Monday.

"We hope to see some flexibility in the next visit by the secretary of state," Mr. Mubarak said. "I hope they could end this before the end of this year."

The peace process has taken on new, public momentum with the public conciliation between Israel and Jordan and the recent steps to implement the peace accord between Israel and the Palestinians that was signed last September.

Mr. Mubarak, whose predecessor, Anwar el Sadat, was the first Arab leader to make peace with Israel, in 1979, has been traveling almost as much as Mr. Christopher in trying to forge new bonds between countries that have been periodically warring since 1948.

That his meeting yesterday with Mr. Rabin seemed almost routine was an indication of his peacemaking role: Until 1992, the Egyptian president had not met with an Israeli leader for six years.

Mr. Mubarak's motives are several: to bolster his image in his own country, which is beset with domestic woes; to further reduce the ostracism Egypt has felt from the Arab world over Mr. Sadat's bold move; and to earn more favor from the United States, which is bankrolling the whole process with financial aid.

Yesterday, Mr. Mubarak said he had talked to Mr. Assad about the steps needed to make peace with Israel and that "my impression is Syria really is interested in peace. This is my feeling."

But he cautioned, "Syria will never accept signing any peace treaty without a complete withdrawal of the Golan Heights."

Israel captured the Golan Heights from Syria in the 1967 war. Their negotiations are stuck at a standoff: Israel has balked at promising that it will give back all of the captured territory, while Syria has refused to say what peace benefits it will offer in return.

Mr. Rabin repeated his stance at a news conference in Taba.

"The present [Israeli] government is the first government that has made it clear that it is ready for a withdrawal on the Golan Heights," he said. But he added, "I will not define lines before I know what I will get in return."

Mr. Rabin laid out his demands for progress in negotiations with Syria: "First, Syria has to do something. It needs public diplomacy. It needs public utterances that will bring the people of Israel to be convinced that Syria is eager to have peace."

Mr. Rabin noted the recent public ceremonies between the leaders of Israel and those of Jordan and the Palestinians. "We haven't seen anything of this kind, even on a smaller scale, by Syria," he said.

Yesterday's meeting between Mr. Mubarak and Mr. Rabin came amid speculation that the Egyptian president would soon visit Israel. It would be the first such visit since Mr. Sadat's 1982 visit to Jerusalem.

Mr. Mubarak fell back on a familiar, vague promise.

"I will visit Israel at a suitable time," he said, but he would not commit himself to such a visit this year.

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