JERUSALEM — Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak will meet "within weeks" in the first summit between the two countries in nearly four years, Israeli officials said Wednesday.
Relations between Israel and Egypt, the only Arab nation with which the Jewish state has diplomatic ties, have been frosty ever since Israel's invasion of neighboring Lebanon in June, 1982. But Peres, who took over as prime minister of a national unity government last fall, made normalization of relations with Cairo one of his top priorities.
Avraham Tamir, director general of Peres' office, confirmed plans for the summit. He spoke in the Egyptian capital, which he is visiting along with a key Peres ally, Ezer Weizman.
Weizman, on the second day of a controversial three-day trip to Egypt, met Wednesday with Foreign Minister Esmat Abdel Meguid after conferring Tuesday night with Mubarak.
Egyptian Summit Likely
Weizman, who holds Cabinet rank as minister without portfolio, was quoted by Israeli journalists traveling with him as saying that the summit will take place in Egypt, though not in the capital, sometime in May.
But a senior Israeli government official here insisted that the timing has not been set and that the meeting might take place in June. This official also said the site of the meeting is still to be determined, as are some details of the agenda.
Still, he added, "Everybody knows that it's going to take place."
Israel has named a three-member working group, including Tamir and representatives of the Foreign and Defense ministries, to iron out details of the summit, another government official said.
Both Weizman and Tamir told reporters in Cairo that the agenda will not include broad questions of Mideast peace. Tamir said the talks will include "Taba, the return of the Egyptian ambassador, things like that."
Bitter Land Dispute
Taba is a pie-shaped sliver of land on the Gulf of Aqaba that is the subject of a bitter sovereignty dispute between the two countries. A previous Israeli-Egyptian agreement calls for a series of steps to resolve the dispute, ending in impartial arbitration. But Israel has contended that possibilities for a negotiated settlement are not yet exhausted, thus freezing the status quo.
Egypt withdrew its ambassador to Israel in September, 1982, after the massacre of hundreds of Palestinians at the Sabra and Chatilla refugee camps near Beirut by Lebanese Christian militiamen allied with Israel.
It has set three conditions for the envoy's return--the return of Taba, Israel's withdrawal from Lebanon, and improvement of the quality of life for Palestinians in the Israeli occupied territories.
Speculation in Israel is that in order to clear the way for a summit, Israel has agreed to submit the Taba issue to arbitration, while the Egyptians have promised to return their ambassador to Tel Aviv.
It is believed that Egypt wants the summit to take place only after Israel completes its current phased withdrawal from Lebanon. The Israeli Cabinet is due to debate the final stage of the pullout this Sunday, and officials here have said that the pullout should be completed by late May or early June.
Weizman's trip to Cairo at the invitation of Egyptian Prime Minister Kamal Hassan Ali was almost blocked on the eve of his scheduled departure by Israeli Foreign Minister Yitzhak Shamir and his rightist Likud bloc colleagues in the coalition government. The trip was approved by only a single vote in a telephone roll call of the 25-member Cabinet, and only after Peres threatened to resign if the balloting went against Weizman.
Shamir objected to the trip as an intrusion into his rightful domain as foreign minister, although the challenge reflected deeper splits in the national unity government over policy toward Egypt and Israel's other Arab neighbors.
Egypt signed a peace treaty with Israel in 1979, after President Jimmy Carter mediated the Camp David negotiations between then-Prime Minister Menachem Begin and the late Egyptian President Anwar Sadat. The last Egyptian-Israeli summit was between Sadat and Begin in June, 1981, just five months before the Egyptian leader was assassinated.