Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard A. Shevardnadze, pressing what is seen as Moscow's biggest diplomatic initiative in the Middle East in more than a decade, arrived in Egypt on Monday to discuss Arab-Israeli peace prospects with his Egyptian and Israeli counterparts.
Shevardnadze, who is the highest-ranking Soviet official to visit Egypt since Andrei A. Gromyko came here in 1975, presented what he described as some "important" new Soviet proposals concerning the peace process to Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in a two-hour meeting following his arrival from Jordan.
Hours after the Soviet minister's arrival, Israeli Foreign Minister Moshe Arens also flew into Cairo to meet with Shevardnadze at the latter's request. That meeting, which will be the second encounter between the two foreign ministers in less than a month, is scheduled to take place Wednesday before the expected arrival here of Yasser Arafat, chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organization.
Talks With Mubarak
Arafat, who is also coming to confer with Shevardnadze, was expected to arrive shortly after Arens leaves. Arens, the highest-ranking Israeli official to visit Egypt in two years, conferred separately with Mubarak for 90 minutes Monday evening.
This revolving diplomatic door of arrivals and departures, all centered around the Shevardnadze visit, represents what for Moscow is the culmination of a long and, until now, largely backstage process. "The Soviet Union, after standing in the shadows of American diplomacy in the Middle East for more than 10 years, is finally making a real comeback on the regional diplomatic scene," one Western envoy here said.
That it is doing so at a time when the Bush Administration seems reluctant to seize the initiative in the Middle East peace process worries some diplomats, particularly those from West European nations, which have been urging the United States to play a more active role in the region.
The Administration's slowness to follow up on the historic dialogue it opened last December with the PLO has also disappointed Arab leaders, who had been hoping to see more progress early this year toward convening an international peace conference.
Shevardnadze, who has described his five-nation Mideast tour as a search for "new ideas" to accelerate the peace process, said in Damascus, Syria, on Saturday that Moscow intends to press for the convening of an international peace conference as early as possible.
"There are signs that a peace conference can convene next year," he told reporters upon his arrival in Cairo.
In Damascus and Amman, Shevardnadze said that the PLO, in renouncing terrorism and finally recognizing Israel's right to exist, had already gone a long way toward making the convening of a peace conference possible. In the Soviet view, the principle problem now, he added, is "Israeli obstinacy."
How the Soviet foreign minister intends to get around this "obstinacy" when he meets with Arens was not clear. However, the main item on the Israeli agenda for the meeting with Shevardnadze is a normalization of Israeli-Soviet relations, severed by Moscow in the wake of the 1967 Middle East War.
Although Israeli-Soviet relations have been steadily warming in recent months, Moscow's position until now has been that full normalization is not possible until Israel agrees to attend an international peace conference together with the PLO and its other Arab adversaries. But several diplomats said they thought it likely that Shevardnadze will be prepared to engage in some more "constructive give and take" over the question of normalization, provided that Israel shows more flexibility toward the international conference.
'A Good Sign'
"This will be the second meeting in the past month between the two ministers, and that fact, plus the fact that this meeting comes at the Soviets' request, is a good sign for Soviet-Israeli relations," an Israeli diplomat said. The two ministers last met in Paris, at a conference to control the spread of chemical weapons.
While the peace process figures highest on the agendas of all the meetings that the two foreign ministers will be having in Cairo, Egyptian and Israeli officials say they both hope that Arens' visit can also be used to speed up the negotiations that are now under way at a lower level over Israel's return to Egyptian sovereignty of the Sinai beach resort of Taba.
Israel retained Taba when it returned the rest of the Sinai to Egypt in the wake of the signing of the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty 10 years ago. An international arbitration panel awarded Taba to Egypt last year, but the transfer has been delayed by negotiations over the price that Egypt will pay for a hotel that Israel built there, the terms under which Israeli tourists will be allowed access to the resort and other technical details.
An Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman said that Taba was not raised in the Arens-Mubarak meeting Monday night. But other Israeli sources said they hoped that a final accord on Taba can be reached while Arens, who is to return to Israel on Wednesday, is still here.
The Israeli spokesman said that Mubarak and Arens discussed "everything" related to the peace process but, as expected, "reached no understanding" on the PLO.
Shevardnadze told reporters that he and Mubarak agreed on all of the major issues they discussed, adding that he gave the Egyptian leader a detailed message from Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev that included "some important presentations regarding a Middle East settlement." He did not elaborate.