The leaders of Egypt and Israel met here Thursday for the first time in five years as the Israeli prime minister called for the injection of “new and fresh substance” into their relations and into the moribund Middle East peace process.
In their first day of talks in this Mediterranean port city, Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak focused on ways to solve the Palestinian problem that divides the Middle East. “There are differences about the Palestinians, but there is also common ground,” Peres told reporters after a three-hour private session with Mubarak.
Communique in Doubt
The two leaders are scheduled to meet for a final session this morning, but it was not yet clear whether they have found enough common ground to issue a joint communique, much less to take a common approach to the peace process.
At the least, however, Mubarak is expected to announce at the end of the summit that Egypt will appoint an ambassador to Israel for the first time since 1982.
Security was tight for the summit, with Mubarak’s guards carrying machine guns and armored cars ringing Ras el Tin Palace, headquarters for the summit. Israel’s blue-and-white flag was unfurled over the palace gates as a naval band played the Israeli national anthem for the first time in Egypt since the late President Anwar Sadat met Israel’s then-Prime Minister Menachem Begin in Cairo, two months before Sadat was assassinated by Muslim zealots in 1981.
In his arrival remarks, Peres said Israel is “interested in a serious way” in solving the Palestinian problem, with the participation of the Palestinians themselves, and he suggested that both sides try to bring “new and fresh substance” to the problem.
“The Palestinians have a right to participate in the determination of their own future,” he said at an official luncheon given by Egypt’s Prime Minister Ali Lutfi before meeting Mubarak. “We do not have any desire to dominate another people. In Jewish history, there is no desire to control the destiny of another people.”
Mubarak said after the private meeting with Peres that they concentrated on the Palestinian issue. Mubarak said that bilateral relations--frosty since the Sadat-Begin summit despite the peace treaty the two countries signed in 1979--are “a side issue” to the main problem of “how we push the peace process forward.”
In raising the Palestinian issue, Peres was tacitly acknowledging what senior Egyptian officials have said would be their main concern here. Mubarak is anxious that his meeting with the Israeli leader not appear as simply another step on the road to a separate peace between the two countries but part of what a senior official in Cairo called a “grand design” for peace in the region.
For all the talk of grand designs and new substance, officials on both sides conceded that they expect no breakthroughs at a meeting that was itself in doubt until a few hours before the Israeli prime minister’s arrival.
‘Nothing Is Yet Finalized’
It was not clear whether there will be a joint statement today at the close of the meeting. A member of the Israeli delegation who briefed reporters Thursday night said: “Nothing yet is finalized. To have a communique you have to have agreement on a wide range of issues.”
However, Mubarak fended off reporters’ questions by telling them to “wait for the communique,” adding, “The Israeli position is improving a lot concerning the Palestinians.” And an Egyptian press spokesman insisted that a joint statement was being drafted. Spokesmen on both sides that it was unlikely that there would be a joint press conference.
Mubarak indicated that “there are no large differences” between him and Peres over convening an international conference on peace in the Middle East. “The international conference is on the agenda (for today’s meeting), but this should not negate the need for direct negotiations,” Mubarak said.
Egypt, among other Arab states, has backed the idea of an international conference on the Middle East that would include Israel, the Palestine Liberation Organization and the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council. Such a gathering would bring the Soviet Union into the Middle East peace process and has been resisted in the past by both Israel and the United States.
Mubarak, who has consistently backed PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat, criticized Arafat’s intransigence over acknowledging Israel’s right to exist, a position that led Jordan’s King Hussein to drop his effort to develop a joint Jordanian-PLO peace approach. “The PLO attitude has put us in a very difficult position,” Mubarak complained.
Even if no joint communique is issued today, the summit appears to signal an upswing in bilateral relations. It was only after four days of intensive discussions and heavy American pressure that the two countries finally signed an agreement early Thursday to submit a longstanding border dispute to international arbitration.
The dispute, over a stretch of Sinai beachfront called Taba, had become the primary obstacle to normalizing Egyptian-Israeli relations.
Egypt had made resolution of the Taba impasse a condition for the summit meeting and for returning its ambassador to Israel after a four-year absence. The ambassador was withdrawn in September, 1982, to protest the massacre of Palestinian civilians in Beirut by Israeli-backed Christian militiamen, and a charge d’affaires has since been directing the Egyptian mission in Tel Aviv.
Relations between the two countries have also been strained because of Israel’s failure to withdraw from the Taba area when it pulled its troops out of the rest of the Sinai Peninsula in 1982 and returned the peninsula to Egyptian sovereignty.
“I think it is now time to send an ambassador,” Mubarak told reporters Thursday. “No problem.”
The meeting here was arranged so hastily that there were substantial logistical problems. When a planeload of Israel-based reporters flew in for the meeting, they were made to stay on the aircraft for 90 minutes while airport authorities searched for the ramp they needed to disembark. One was finally flown in from Cairo.
“There’s no planned agenda, there’s no draft communique, there’s nothing,” Uri Savir, Peres’ spokesman, told reporters shortly before the prime minister landed in a military helicopter on the lawn of the palace here.
After full military ceremonies, Peres attended a working lunch with Lutfi and then went into the one-on-one meeting with Mubarak, which was followed by a working dinner of the full delegations on a palace balcony overlooking the Mediterranean.
‘Extremely Friendly’ Talks
A spokesman for the Israeli delegation said the two men discussed “all the topics you can imagine--bilateral relations and the peace process.” He described the atmosphere as “extremely friendly” but refused to discuss the talks in detail. “I was instructed not to say anything,” he said.
The lack of information reflected not only the haste with which the meeting was arranged but also a general desire on the part of the Egyptians to keep a low profile at a time when they are concerned that Israel will mount a retaliatory raid for last weekend’s terrorist attack on an Istanbul synagogue in which 21 Jews were killed.
By agreeing to meet with Peres, Mubarak also risked antagonizing many of his countrymen, who have become increasingly anti-Israeli in recent years. The popular perception among Egyptians is that Israel has gained far more from the 1979 Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty than Egypt has, and that Mubarak, by agreeing to a summit meeting with Israel, is giving in to pressure exerted by the United States, which provides Egypt with $2 billion a year in aid.
Condemnation on Both Sides
Egypt’s opposition press has been increasingly strident in its condemnation of Israel in advance of the summit meeting. An article in a leftist newspaper last week said that if the meeting took place, it would be “a day of national mourning.”
There is criticism, too, on the Israeli side. Peres was accused of being so eager to meet with Mubarak for his own political purposes that he was making concessions that threatened to humiliate not only himself but his country.
Before he left Thursday morning for Egypt, Peres chaired a Cabinet meeting that had been demanded by members of the right-wing Likud faction in Israel’s coalition government.
Israel radio quoted Housing Minister David Levy, a Likud leader, as saying that Peres had promised at the meeting to reject any Egyptian call for Palestinian self-determination or for a role in peace negotiations for the PLO.
Within Coalition Guidelines
Peres’ reference to Palestinian rights in his luncheon speech here appeared to fall within coalition guidelines, for it was couched in language taken from the 1978 Egyptian-Israeli accords signed by Begin at Camp David, Md., and later adopted by a Likud government.
Critics in the Israeli press have been calling this the “crippled summit” ever since it became clear that Peres’ hopes of turning it into a major step forward in the peace process were unrealistic.
Asked here about this criticism, Peres’ spokesman, Savir, said: “I don’t see why it should be considered as such. There were real problems in getting the (Taba dispute) solved. But the summit itself is a new beginning.”