JERUSALEM — Failure to convene an Egyptian-Israeli summit meeting tentatively scheduled for next week could deal a severe setback to hopes for progress toward Middle East peace, Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres said Friday in an interview.
Peres said "time is running out" in the effort to conclude an agreement that would submit to binding arbitration a border dispute between the two countries over a sliver of beachfront called Taba. President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt has insisted that such an agreement must be signed before he will meet the Israeli Prime Minister.
Peres and Mubarak have both indicated that if they meet, they want to focus on ways to address the Palestinian question and advance the search for regional peace.
If tentative plans for a meeting Wednesday and Thursday in Alexandria fall through, "it may postpone the process for a very, very long time," Peres said.
No Alternative Dates
The Israeli leader said no alternative dates for a summit meeting have been discussed. He is scheduled to exchange posts with Foreign Minister Yitzhak Shamir on Oct. 14 under a rotation provision of the agreement that binds their parties in the government of national unity.
Shamir, head of the rightist Likud Bloc, has argued that any Egyptian-Israeli summit conference should focus on bilateral relations, and that it would be pointless to talk about peace with other countries before the peace with Egypt is consolidated.
Peres, asked if there would still be time to reschedule a meeting with Mubarak before the rotation, replied: "I really don't know. But I think it will become very tight."
Peres is scheduled to visit the United States and Canada the week after next, and the Jewish high holy days follow in early October.
If the two sides can resolve their differences over the arbitration agreement on Taba, a small area Israel retained in 1981 after returning the rest of the Sinai Peninsula to Egypt, "the summit meeting can be the next day or two days," Peres said. "But I agree the time is running out."
Richard W. Murphy, the U.S. assistant secretary of state who has been shuttling back and forth in the region for the last several days, returned to Israel on Friday from Egypt and conferred with Israeli leaders. It was not clear whether he had achieved any breakthrough on the Taba question.
Peres said that Israel and Egypt must still agree on three independent arbitrators and that there are technical differences over the mapping of the disputed area. Each side has rejected several possible arbitrators suggested by the other from a master list provided by the United States.
Some Israeli analysts contend that Mubarak is dragging his feet in order to gain the maximum advantage from Peres, who is regarded as anxious to crown his two years as prime minister with the summit meeting. It has also been suggested that differences have emerged over an agenda.
But Peres said in the interview that there is no agenda problem.
"We have agreed that the agenda will be without any prior conditions," he said. "Everybody will be free to put on the table whatever he has in mind. But from my point of view, as well as from President Mubarak's point of view, we shall deal basically with the future and not with the past."
Target Is Negotiations
Peres said he wants to talk to Mubarak about "how to prepare the ground for a peace conference" on the Middle East. He said various parties, particularly Jordan, must agree "on participation, on the procedure, on the timing." The United States, he said, may be able to "guide the preparatory steps. . . . There are various possibilities. But I think the next target should be negotiations. And I'm convinced we cannot put solutions before negotiations. Solutions must result from negotiations."
Mubarak, as the leader of the only Arab country to have signed a peace treaty with Israel, is under considerable pressure to use that leverage to advance the cause of the Palestinians. At a minimum, the Palestinians demand the creation of an independent state from Israeli-occupied lands on the West Bank of the Jordan River and the Gaza Strip.
At least half the Israeli population favors annexation of the territories, which Israel has occupied since the 1967 Six-Day War and which the political right sees as part of the Biblical "Land of Israel" divinely bequeathed to the Jewish people. Peres' centrist Labor Alignment is on record as favoring a "land-for-peace" arrangement in which Israel would give up some occupied territory in return for normalization of relations with its Arab neighbors.