Top Israeli leaders differed sharply Thursday over the significance of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak's new Mideast peace initiative.
Prime Minister Shimon Peres and his aides took an optimistic stand, but their Likud bloc coalition partners were sharply critical.
"It is the first realistic opening in years to improve Israel-Egyptian relations and to enlarge the peace process," a senior source in the prime minister's office said. He spoke just a few hours after Peres said, "We shall gladly go to Cairo" for talks with Jordanian representatives or a joint Jordanian-Palestinian delegation.
However, Foreign Minister Yitzhak Shamir, leader of the Likud, charged Thursday that the initiative is a transparent attempt to draw the United States into contact with the Palestine Liberation Organization, adding that he does not see in it "any contribution to the (peace) process in our area."
Seen as a Hoax
And Deputy Prime Minister David Levy of the Likud told a group of Jewish settlers in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip territories that the whole affair is a hoax. He pledged that the Likud will not cooperate with the policy of Peres' Labor Party of territorial compromise with the Arabs.
The conflicting assessments by the two senior partners in Israel's national unity government underlined the deep divisions here regarding the Mideast peace process--divisions that constitute a major obstacle to the success of Mubarak's or any other peace initiative.
The Egyptian leader has offered to host direct negotiations between Israel and a joint Jordanian-Palestinian delegation to search for answers to the Palestinian problem. Israeli officials said that based on high-level contacts with their Egyptian counterparts this week, they understand that Mubarak hopes U.S. representatives would meet with such a joint delegation as a preliminary to direct talks involving Israel.
Mubarak is expected to push for U.S. support during a trip to Washington next week. Skeptics here have contended all along that his proposal was intended mostly as a public relations gesture to pave the way for his U.S. trip, during which he is expected to seek a major increase in American aid to his country.
However, a senior Peres aide said Thursday that while the Mubarak initiative is no breakthrough comparable to the late Egyptian President Anwar Sadat's dramatic trip to Jerusalem in 1977, "something is moving in the right direction. There is no doubt about that anymore. Even if it was a tactical ploy to begin with, it has gone beyond that."
Major Pluses Cited
From Israel's point of view, this source said, the Mubarak initiative has three major pluses: "It's a serious effort to deal with the Palestinian problem in a manner agreeable to Israel; it represents a shift toward Jordan, and it's a shift to direct negotiations and not an international conference."
Peres reiterated in a speech Tuesday night that Israel will not accept any joint Jordanian-Palestinian delegation that includes members of the Palestine Liberation Organization, which it spurns as purely a terrorist organization.
Likud leaders appear to go further, however, warning that whatever the Palestinian representatives call themselves, the Mubarak formula invites PLO involvement.
"We are for peace through direct negotiation with Jordan," Levy said Thursday. "But we will not be partners to any initiative which brings the PLO in through the back door. It is an illusion to think that this is peace. This is a hoax that we must confront from the start."
At an airport news conference on his return from a trip to Western Europe, Shamir said, "I don't see any breakthrough" in Mubarak's proposals. If Egypt wants better relations with Israel, he added, it should start by returning its ambassador to Tel Aviv. Egypt withdrew its ambassador to Israel in September, 1982, in protest over the Israeli invasion of Lebanon.