JERUSALEM — Senior Israeli officials publicly expressed reservations Friday about the role Egypt sees for the United States in the Mideast peace process and said the next move regarding Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak's new peace initiative is up to the Arabs.
The comments came amid continuing intensive diplomatic contact between Israel and Egypt over Mubarak's proposal for U.S.-sponsored talks to lay the groundwork for direct peace negotiations between Israel and a joint Jordanian-Palestinian delegation.
Prime Minister Shimon Peres received a message from Mubarak on Friday that was delivered by the Israeli energy minister and political confidant, Moshe Shahal, who returned to Jerusalem from three days of talks in Cairo. A spokesman for Peres refused to characterize the message.
Meanwhile, Avraham Tamir, director general of Peres' prime ministerial office, remained in the Egyptian capital for a second day of discussions with Egyptian officials.
A senior Israeli official, who briefed foreign correspondents here Friday on condition that he not be further identified, said this week's talks have concentrated on "the opening of the process, not the end" and that they should be seen as a preliminary to a summit meeting between Peres and Mubarak.
'Ball in Arab Court'
On the Mubarak initiative, the official said: "The ball is now definitely in the Arabs' court--to see if they can come up with a delegation that is agreeable to us and that will hold direct negotiations with us."
Peres has agreed to meet a Jordanian-Palestinian delegation if it does not include members of the Palestine Liberation Organization, which Israel refuses to recognize as anything more than a terrorist group. But Mubarak's public comments on this score have been ambiguous and PLO officials have rejected his initiative. For its part the PLO has refused to recognize Israel's right to exist.
Meanwhile, there are apparently differences within Israel's fragile national unity government over how major an issue Israel should make of the political leanings of any Palestinians who might participate in direct talks.
Leaders of the rightist Likud bloc charge that the whole Mubarak initiative is aimed at indirect recognition of the PLO. But Ezer Weizman, a Cabinet minister without portfolio, said in a television interview Thursday night that he favors an approach in which "we wouldn't exactly run a thorough check on everyone in the delegation."
Asked what obstacles remain in the way of negotiations, the senior government official told foreign correspondents: "The main obstacle is the Arab feedback to the Mubarak suggestion--especially to see what the Jordanian response will be."
No Comment From Hussein
King Hussein of Jordan has made no public comment on the Mubarak proposal since it was disclosed last Monday, and it is believed here that the Mubarak initiative was made without any consultation with Hussein.
Concern over the U.S. role in the proposed preliminary talks stems from a changed Israeli perception of Mubarak's intentions. At first it was understood here that he wanted the United States to invite Israel and the joint Jordanian-Palestinian delegation for discussions that would lead to broader peace talks, possibly in Cairo.
Following this week's diplomatic exchanges, however, Israeli officials said Mubarak proposes that Washington first talk with the joint Jordanian-Palestinian delegation, and only then bring Israel into the discussions.
This later interpretation is seen here as cheapening perhaps the most important breakthrough Israeli officials see in the Mubarak proposal--that it calls for direct negotiations in which the Arab participants would publicly recognize Israel.
Israel is also concerned that the two-stage proposal could be used as a wedge to gain indirect American approval of any Palestinian participants in the joint delegation, thus undermining Israel's veto power over its membership.
"We would very much favor an American role in this whole process, and particularly in potential negotiations," the senior government official told foreign reporters Friday. "What we do not support are negotiations--and I stress, negotiations--between Washington and a Jordanian-Palestinian delegation without Israel.'