JERUSALEM — Representatives of Israel and Egypt will come together today for their first formal negotiations in almost two years, and the two countries are approaching the meeting reluctantly.
Playing matchmaker is the United States, which is eager for a thaw in the "cold peace" that has existed ever since Israel invaded Lebanon in June, 1982, and Egypt withdrew its ambassador three months later.
But the two former enemies--influenced by deep mutual suspicion bred by decades of hostility and by contemporary self-interest--bring such different perspectives to today's meeting at Beersheba, Israel, that anything more than cosmetic improvement in their relationship is unlikely.
At issue is the coastal enclave of Taba, a pie-shaped sliver of land situated on the Israeli-Egyptian border at the southern end of the Sinai, just south of Eilat on the Red Sea.
Both countries claim Taba. However, Israel occupies it and has already built a five-star hotel and a tourist village in the area. The Israelis exercise sovereignty there and thus have a bigger stake in the border dispute.
In Cairo, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak is regarded as being more interested in re-establishing his country's position in the Arab world than in improving relations with Israel, and the government-guided Egyptian press has treated the Taba talks in a low-key fashion.
Moreover, Mubarak is planning an important visit in March to Washington, where he will be asking for a sharp increase in U.S. aid. So, any Egyptian gesture toward Israel would presumably be aimed at strengthening Mubarak's hand with the Reagan Administration--while having only minimal effects on Egypt's relations with other Arab nations.
Today's talks thus conjure up the image of a sort of international singles bar--with Egyptians and Israelis as reticent hangers-on, forced together by a well-meaning, even solicitous American mutual friend.
Israel, which has requested almost $5 billion in U.S. aid over the next 21 months, also has reason to be attentive to Washington's wishes. Moreover, Prime Minister Shimon Peres' grand coalition is intent on presenting a more conciliatory face to the world after what were seen as the often-belligerent policies of the Likud bloc governments that preceded it.
Even if Peres is ready for a major initiative, however, he is under pressure from others in his national unity government who have different ideas about policy toward Egypt. Also, Israel sees little potential gain and much to lose in any serious attempt to resolve the Taba issue during the three days of scheduled talks.
Egypt has made it clear that it sees this week's meetings as a step toward bringing the Taba issue to arbitration, as stipulated in earlier Egyptian-Israeli agreements.
Israel wants to postpone arbitration for as long as possible. It is determined to confine the Beersheba negotiations to the narrow issue of what role troops of the Multinational Force and Observers should play in the contested area, pending a comprehensive settlement. These units were formed in August, 1981, to oversee implementation of the Egyptian-Israeli peace agreement in the Sinai.
Although no one expects a breakthrough at Beersheba, concessions were necessary on both sides just to resurrect the Taba negotiations, which have been suspended since March, 1983. Those who are inspired by the example of Anwar Sadat's dramatic trip to Jerusalem in November, 1977, see even this small step as symbolically significant after more than two years of frosty Egyptian-Israeli relations.
"We hope that this will be a beginning, a renewal of the dialogue between our two countries, on pending questions related to the implementation of the peace treaty," an Israeli Foreign Ministry official said.
Peres put Egypt near the top of his list of foreign policy priorities soon after taking office in September and has invited Mubarak to meet him.
"We think that Egypt has created a precedent in the Arab world by adopting a strategy for peace," he told heads of diplomatic missions in Israel three months ago, "and we are interested to see the Egyptian government and people continue to lead the strategy for peace all over the . . . Middle East."
However, many here feel that too much has already been given up to the Egyptians in return for too little, and these Israelis are deeply suspicious.
"We gave back the Sinai, and what did we get?" a middle-aged Israeli woman asked during dinner the other night. "There is no peace. Israeli tourists are encouraged to go to Egypt, but no Egyptians come here. And if Israel and Syria go to war, Egypt says it will support Syria."