Mubarak, Clinton confer on Mideast

Egyptian leader promises to intercede

optimism for peace talks running high

July 02, 1999|By Jay Hancock | Jay Hancock,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- With a newly formed Israeli government fueling hopes for a revived Middle East peace process, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak promised yesterday to meet with Arab and Israeli leaders to help move the talks forward.

"Unfortunately, valuable time has been wasted," Mubarak said at a news conference with President Clinton. "Today, there is an opportunity which should not be missed."

Mubarak said he would meet separately "in the near future" with Israeli Prime Minister-elect Ehud Barak, Syrian President Hafez el Assad and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.

Barak's election on a pro-peace agenda, and his formation this week of a diverse yet strong government, raised hopes for peace talks with both the Palestinians and the Syrians. Some specialists believe momentum toward negotiations is building quickly regardless of what Egypt or the United States does.

"I wouldn't be surprised if there is an Israeli-Syrian handshake on the White House lawn within 12 months," said Kenneth Stein, fellow for Middle East affairs at Emory University's Carter Center. "I think 80 percent of the agreement is in the can."

If that's so, one reason for Mubarak's visit may have been to convince the White House and Congress that his country is still an important conduit and catalyst for Middle East peace.

With the death of Jordan's King Hussein this year, Mubarak became perhaps Clinton's most important ally in the Arab world. "Egypt will continue to play a leading role to address the important tasks ahead," Clinton stressed yesterday.

Barak is expected to meet with Clinton in Washington within the next few weeks. "For sure this month, unless something goes really wrong," a State Department source said. "We don't want to corner the guy. We are going to defer to him."

Barak formed a government Wednesday after weeks of negotiations, and his coalition is widely seen as strong enough and committed enough to restart peace talks.

"We now have a real chance to move the peace process forward in the Middle East," Clinton said.

High on the agenda will be implementing the Wye River peace agreement, reached last October, in which Israel would give Palestinians more control over the West Bank territory in exchange for greater security against terrorism.

Talks with Syria are expected to include the future of the strategic Golan Heights, now held by Israel, coupled with U.S. economic aid for both Israel and Syria.

For all the optimism, spurred in part by favorable statements recently from Syria's Assad about Barak, there is no assurance that peace talks will bear substantial fruit, regional experts cautioned.

"Everybody's expecting wonderful and great things, but maybe it's going to be very difficult to live up to those expectations," said Richard Fairbanks, president of the Center for Strategic and International Studies and the former chief U.S. negotiator for the Mideast peace process. Barak "has this very difficult job ahead of him because he has this morass of domestic politics to go through."

Besides the Golan Heights and demands for Palestinian self-rule, the delicate issues include the political status of Jerusalem, regional water rights, Israeli security against terrorism and Israeli settlements on the West Bank.

Mubarak called for the Wye River agreements to be "implemented fully and in good faith" yesterday. And he warned that Israel should halt new settlements on the West Bank and in Gaza, where Palestinians hope someday to establish their own state.

Clinton, skirting a question about a Palestinian homeland, said he "would like it if the Palestinian people felt free and were free to live wherever they liked."

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