Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and King Hussein of Jordan will meet in Egypt on Wednesday to formalize a joint peace proposal for Mubarak to present to President Reagan next week.
Government sources here said Hussein has already agreed privately to endorse the proposals that Mubarak has been laying out over the last few days--a view supported by announcements in Egypt's semi-official press that their meeting, in the Red Sea resort of Hurghada, will last only a few hours.
Although Mubarak's precise proposal is not totally clear, he seems to be calling for a three-stage approach to activate the Middle East peace process.
U.S., Israeli Roles
First, there would be direct dialogue between the United States and a joint Palestinian-Jordanian delegation; second, expanded talks in Cairo involving Israel and other interested parties, and third, an international conference to put its seal of approval on a final peace settlement.
To strengthen his hand for his March 12 meeting with Reagan, Mubarak has intensified diplomatic contacts in the Middle East. His aim, according to his aides, is to be able to go to the White House representing a coalition of moderate Arab states with a common plan for peace, thereby hoping to force a favorable response from Washington.
"The Arabs want an active, not passive, American policy," Ashraf Ghorbal, the Egyptian ambassador to the United States from 1974 to 1984, said in Cairo. "To leave the Middle East alone as long as it is calm just invites trouble, because you are saying, 'You only get my attention when the area heats up.'
"If we make use of the opportunities that are born, I believe we can have regional peace," Ghorbal said. "If we keep missing them, then it is a long road ahead. And there is now, I believe, an opportunity."
That opportunity, Egypt believes, was produced by two events in February: the beginning of Israel's staged withdrawal from southern Lebanon (Israel's invasion in 1982 had frozen relations between Cairo and Jerusalem) and the Feb. 11 accord in which Hussein and Yasser Arafat, chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organization, agreed to the formation of a joint delegation and accepted the principle of a comprehensive peace based on U.N. Security Council resolutions.
Mubarak then proposed direct contacts between Washington, Israel and the Palestinian-Jordanian delegation and suggested that moderate Palestinians be on the delegation. To muster Arab support and further isolate Syria, which has pledged to "foil" the Hussein-Arafat accord, the Egyptian president is counting on help from two countries that were once among the most radical hard-liners--Iraq and Algeria.
He sent Foreign Minister Esmat Abdel Meguid to Iraq on Friday to meet Tarik Aziz, Meguid's counterpart there, and he privately received assurances from Algeria that it will actively lobby on behalf of the Egyptian proposals, Mubarak's aides said. Not coincidentally, the Algerian president, Chadli Bendjedid, will follow Mubarak to Washington by two weeks and is scheduled to meet with Reagan.
Warning Against Optimism
This emergence of an Egyptian-led coalition gives Mubarak strong leverage, but U.S. diplomats--reflecting the view of Washington--doubt that the Hussein-Arafat accord will stick, and independent political analysts caution against undue optimism.
"We are only in the period where people are trying to change the political environment so the participants can say they are ready to negotiate--and no one has said that yet," Harold H. Saunders, a former assistant secretary of state for Mideast affairs, said in Cairo last week.
"Arafat wants to make the step and is trying to get the support of his Executive Committee to negotiate. But Israel hasn't sorted out its objectives yet; the Palestinians are divided; the Arabs are divided. And the Palestinians are weak and the Israelis are strong.
"There is another fundamental problem," Saunders continued. "Even if the Palestinians and Jordanians said, 'Yes, we recognize Israel and we're ready to negotiate,' I am not sure Israel is psychologically prepared to accept the acceptance. Somehow the Israelis can't bear the thought of talking when it is safer to just ignore the Palestinians' claim (to a homeland). Something has to be addressed inside the Israeli psyche to make the two sides able to talk to each other."
Peres Welcomes Plan
The Israeli prime minister, Shimon Peres, told an Egyptian delegation in Jerusalem on Wednesday that he welcomed Mubarak's proposal and that his government would be willing to hold direct talks with a delegation of Jordanians and non-PLO Palestinians. Israel has repeatedly said it will never negotiate with the PLO, and official U.S. policy since 1975 has been not to talk to the PLO unless it recognizes Israel's right to exist.
Moreover, the United States and Israel both have repeatedly rejected the idea of an international conference--which would presumably be under U.N. auspices and would include the Soviet Union--in the Mideast peace-seeking process.
Peres' response shifted the focus back to Arafat and raised two questions: Would Arafat be willing to appoint non-PLO members to the delegation; and if not, would Hussein go ahead with talks with Israel on his own?
Arafat, who has built a political career on being noncommittal, seemed to hedge. In an interview with Radio Monte Carlo, monitored Saturday in Cairo, he said that he appreciates Mubarak's efforts but that any negotiations must be under the auspices of an international conference, with the PLO present as the sole representative of all 4.4 million Palestinians.
'Same Old Shadow-Boxing'
"It sounds like the same old shadow-boxing to me," a senior Western diplomat said. "The PLO, in effect, has become a corporation--with its leaders making organizational and personal survival more important than nationalistic goals. The question, I think, is how long before the Palestinians themselves realize that their national objectives aren't necessarily those of the PLO leadership."
Despite the obvious obstacles ahead, the Egyptian Foreign Ministry is in an ebullient mood, believing that its patient diplomacy of the last 18 months is starting to pay dividends. In its view, Egypt has again emerged as the one Arab country capable of influencing events in the Mideast; Israeli-Egyptian contacts are now at the highest level in more than two years; the Palestinians may be edging toward some acceptance of the reality of the Mideast's map in 1985.