American officials said here Monday that U.S., Israeli and Egyptian delegations will hold previously unscheduled talks on the Taba border dispute today in hopes of bringing the sides close enough that an arbitration agreement can be initialed during U.S. Vice President George Bush's current visit to the region.
However, both U.S. and Israeli officials cautioned that it is still far from certain that the negotiators will reach an agreement in time for Bush to become involved. They debunked a report in the Jerusalem Post on Monday that Bush, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres might meet next week to cap the negotiations.
No Stop in Morocco
An aide to the vice president also announced that Bush will not be adding Morocco to the itinerary of his trip. He had previously said he would stop there if it appeared that by doing so he could contribute to the momentum generated in last week's milestone summit meeting between Peres and King Hassan II. However, officials in the Bush party said Monday that the Moroccan monarch had shown no interest in a visit at this time.
The Taba dispute involves a small swath of Sinai Peninsula beachfront on the Gulf of Aqaba claimed by both Israel and Egypt. The two sides have already agreed in principle to submit the issue to a panel of arbitrators but have failed so far to agree on the terms of arbitration.
Aides to Peres see a fast and successful conclusion to the Taba talks as another opportunity to build on the gains of the Moroccan summit.
Return of Ambassador
Mubarak has already said that once a Taba arbitration agreement is signed, Egypt will return its ambassador to Israel, and the way will be prepared for an Israeli-Egyptian summit meeting. (Egypt withdrew its ambassador in 1982 after the massacre of hundreds of Palestinians at two Beirut refugee camps by Israel's Lebanese Christian allies.)
Israeli officials said Egypt initiated the latest round of Taba talks, which are expected to center on ground rules for the technical teams assigned to map their conflicting border claims for inclusion in the arbitration document.
Once the technical work is finished and the document is written, the two sides must still agree on a group of three independent arbitrators to join the two representatives already selected, one from each side. Also, the Israeli Cabinet must give its final approval to the deal.
Jordan, Then Egypt
Israeli officials were openly skeptical that there would be anything to initial before Bush's scheduled Aug. 5 return to Washington from his three-nation Middle East swing. The vice president is to travel from here to Jordan on Wednesday for talks with King Hussein, then on to Egypt for meetings with Mubarak.
Bush devoted much of his attention here Tuesday to the Soviet Jewry issue, visiting a center for new immigrants near Jerusalem and later meeting with Anatoly Shcharansky, the human rights activist released by the Soviets in a prisoner exchange early this year.
While President Reagan has put more emphasis on "quiet diplomacy" in dealing with the Soviets over the issue, Bush said here Monday that private contacts must be backed up with public pressure.
Tour of Old City
Bush on Monday also became the highest-ranking American official ever to tour Jerusalem's historic Old City in the company of Israeli officials. Israel captured the walled city in 1967 and subsequently annexed it, along with all of what had previously been the eastern half of Jerusalem.
Most nations, including the United States, do not officially recognize that annexation, preferring to regard Jerusalem's status as an open question pending Arab-Israeli peace negotiations. That is why Bush's visit Monday was controversial.