Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres held an unexpected meeting here Sunday with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and told Egyptian officials that his country is not planning a full-scale assault on the Palestinians.
But his assurances gave little comfort to the Egyptians, who said the moderate minister's words are often contradicted by his conservative government's actions.
"I think they should get their act together," complained Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Maher, calling on Israel to stop antagonizing Palestinians by bulldozing their homes.
Peres visited Egypt as part of an effort to salvage the all-but-collapsed cease-fire, which was brokered last month by U.S. officials as a step designed to lead to renewed peace talks. He met with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and then held an hourlong session with Arafat, their first get-together in two weeks.
Arafat, president of the Palestinian Authority, left Cairo without commenting on the meeting, while Mubarak and Peres recycled what has become standard fare: calls for peace, patience and understanding, with no concrete steps cited.
As the talks took place, the Israeli Cabinet approved a plan to build a development in the Negev desert near the Gaza Strip, probably removing another potential option for resolving Israeli-Palestinian territorial disputes.
"Reaching a cease-fire agreement and then a comprehensive peace in the region poses a great challenge for the international community," Mubarak said after his meeting with Peres. "We should all shoulder our responsibility."
The violence between Palestinians and Israelis has raged since late September, with more than 600 people killed. Most of the dead have been Palestinians; on both sides, the slain have been primarily civilians.
Early today, Israeli tanks attacked five Palestinian police posts in the West Bank city of Hebron. Army officials said the attack was in response to fire from Palestinian positions. At least nine Palestinians were reported wounded. And in Jerusalem early today, two Palestinians died in what Israeli police said was the premature explosion of a bomb that the men were transporting. Security in Jerusalem is on extremely high alert ahead of tonight's opening of the Maccabiah Games, an international athletic event.
In Israel, conservative factions have pressed for a full-scale military invasion of Palestinian territory in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank as a means of stopping the uprising. Such talk has sent a chill through the Arab world, where there is widespread fear that the conflict could spread into a full-scale war. In Jordan, which signed a peace treaty with Israel in 1994, one Saturday headline declared: "Winds of War."
There would be public support in the Arab world for a military campaign against Israel, but there is also broad recognition that victory would be nearly impossible--especially without Egypt, which was the first Arab nation to sign a peace treaty with Israel, Arab officials and analysts said.
'The Mother of Mistakes . . . Is War'
Peres tried to reassure the Egyptian government Sunday that Israel does not have plans for a large-scale assault on Palestinian territory.
"I told the president from the outset that we do not have any interest to attack the Palestinians," Peres said after his meeting with Mubarak. "We don't have any intention whatsoever, neither to have a ground attack or to attack Arafat. Arafat in our eyes is the representative of the Palestinians."
"Many mistakes were committed, but the greatest mistake, the mother of mistakes, is war," Peres said.
Yet even as Peres said that he was "leaving Cairo with the sense that there is hope," he stuck to the Israeli government's position that negotiations cannot take place until the Palestinians stop the violence. He also said that Israel thinks the idea of bringing in third-party observers to monitor the situation, as sought by the Palestinians, is unworkable.
For their part, Palestinians continue to assert that the violence is a response to the illegal occupation and economic blockade of their land. Palestinian officials also have refused to arrest militants who are viewed by many of their people as resistance fighters rather than terrorists.
Both sides in the conflict have made it impossible to implement the one peace plan on the table, a report by an international panel headed by former Sen. George J. Mitchell (D-Maine), which calls for a cease-fire, a crackdown on Palestinian militants, a freeze on Israeli settlement expansion and an end to Israel's economic closure of Palestinian territory.
Nothing occurred Sunday that suggested the two sides were coming any closer.
The Israeli Cabinet, in its regular weekly session in Jerusalem, gave overwhelming approval to a plan to build towns in the Halutza sand dunes of the Negev desert near the Gaza Strip. Although the parcel is inside Israeli territory, the previous government of Prime Minister Ehud Barak had considered last year giving it to the Palestinians in exchange for Jewish settlements in the West Bank. The land-swap deal collapsed, and Sunday's vote seemed to preclude its revival.
"The government is saying a very important thing here today," said Israeli Cabinet Minister Danny Naveh, who belongs to the conservative Likud Party of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. "Its policy is to develop the Negev, the south and the settlements there and certainly to prevent this area from becoming Palestinian in the future."
Israeli Analysts Downplay Encounter
At the same time, Peres came under attack from Israel's hard right for his meeting with Arafat. But analysts in Israel generally saw little significance to the contact, since Peres' influence on Sharon is limited.
In Egypt, an opposition newspaper, Al Arabi, republished a photo illustration showing Peres in a Nazi uniform. The caption said: "The return of Peres, the Nazi, pollutes Egypt's air."
The Egyptian government initially condemned the picture when it was first published in May, but a Western diplomat questioned the government's sincerity, noting that it wields tremendous control over the media.
Times staff writer Tracy Wilkinson in Jerusalem contributed to this report.