U.S., Egypt Share Goals for Mideast, Bush Says : President Meets Mubarak, Supports ‘Properly Structured’ Talks, Asks Arabs, Israel to Yield
President Bush, opening a week of intense Middle East diplomacy, renewed American support Monday for “a properly structured” international conference to begin a new round of Arab-Israeli negotiations on ending the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
With Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak standing at his side in the White House Rose Garden, Bush said that both Israel and the Palestinians must be prepared to yield some of their long-held positions in the dispute. But his remarks seemed certain to put far more pressure on Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir, who confers with Bush later this week, than on the Palestinians.
“Egypt and the United States share the goals of security for Israel, the end of the occupation and achievement of Palestinian political rights,” Bush said. “These are the promises held out by a sustained commitment to a negotiated settlement, toward which a properly structured international conference could play a useful role at an appropriate time.”
The President’s carefully qualified endorsement of an international conference was virtually identical to the position staked out by the Reagan Administration. But it marked an abrupt change in emphasis for the Bush Administration after weeks in which Secretary of State James A. Baker III had said that it was far too early to consider a high-profile international meeting.
The meetings with Mubarak and Shamir represent the new Administration’s first major venture into Middle East diplomacy.
Bush did not spell out the sort of conference he would consider “properly structured.” The Reagan Administration used the same phrase to provide room for diplomatic maneuvering, especially on the issue of Palestinian representation. U.S. officials refused to be more specific, although they said a conference attended by the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council would surely win approval if other conditions were acceptable.
Shamir adamantly opposes any sort of international conference, insisting instead on direct negotiations between Israel and the neighboring Arab states. During his Washington visit, Shamir is expected to offer elections in the West Bank and Gaza Strip to pick Palestinian leaders who might be brought into peace talks with Israel. But Shamir insists that Israel will never negotiate with the Palestine Liberation Organization, which many Arab residents of the occupied territories see as their representative.
A senior U.S. official said Mubarak told Bush that Shamir’s election plan would never get off the ground because Palestinians never would recognize elections supervised by the Israeli military government. Asked to characterize Bush’s response, the official said that the President asked Mubarak if there were any conditions under which Palestinians would accept the balloting. The official refused to provide additional information, although PLO spokesmen have said that the organization would not object to an election organized by the United Nations.
In their comments to reporters, Bush and Mubarak used very similar language in calling for renewed peace talks. The Egyptian president wants a settlement “achieved through direct negotiations between Israel and all Arab partners, within the framework of the international conference.”
Bush urged a settlement that would achieve the “legitimate political rights” of Palestinians, and Mubarak said that the settlement should recognize the “legitimate national rights” of the Palestinians. Both phrases are intentionally ambiguous, covering anything from an independent Palestinian state to some form of limited self-rule. But both presidents emphasized that the Israeli occupation must be brought to an end.
In an apparent concession to the Israelis, Mubarak said that his government opposes “irredentist claims,” a reference to Palestinian demands to return to cities and towns in Israel from which they or their ancestors fled during Israel’s 1948 war of independence. In effect, Mubarak said that, although Egypt supports a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza, it does not support Palestinian claims to Israel proper.
The senior U.S. official said that the United States and Egypt remain far apart on the timing of an international conference. He said Mubarak wants the meeting to take place by early next year at the latest while “we believe that there’s a lot of ground that has to be covered before there could be a possibly useful role for an international conference.”
Egyptian sources hailed Bush’s endorsement of the concept of an international conference despite the conditions he attached to it.
“There is now a better indication of where the peace process is going,” one source said. “Everything else that will be taking place will be taking place en route to the conference.”
Nevertheless, Mubarak clearly objected to Bush’s deliberate pace.
“We believe that the area stands at a historic crossroads certain to affect the future of many generations,” he said. “The situation is ripe for an active effort.”
Bush and Mubarak met for a little more than an hour at the White House. Then Mubarak accompanied Bush to Baltimore to attend the Orioles-Red Sox season-opening game, although baseball is virtually unknown in Egypt. Mubarak said it was the first game he had ever attended.