CAIRO — Egypt and Israel reached an agreement Wednesday on a lingering border dispute, clearing the way for an Egyptian-Israeli summit meeting today and raising hopes for a thaw in the "cold peace" that has prevailed between the two Camp David signatories.
A summit meeting between Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres, scheduled in advance but in doubt until literally the last minute of the long and tortuous negotiations, will open this morning in the Egyptian port city of Alexandria. This will be the first summit in five years between Israel and Egypt, the only Arab nation ever to sign a peace treaty with the Jerusalem government.
Egypt is expected to announce today that it is restoring relations with Israel to the ambassadorial level, a step Mubarak had earlier pledged to take upon the signing of a framework for resolving the dispute over Taba, a strip of beachfront on the Sinai Peninsula now occupied by Israel.
Egypt withdrew its ambassador to Israel in September, 1982, to protest the massacre of Palestinian civilians in Beirut by Israeli-backed Christian militiamen.
Senior Egyptian sources said they understand that Mohammed Bassiouny, currently the Egyptian charge d'affaires in Tel Aviv, will be named the new ambassador.
Cabinet Is Summoned
The Egyptian Cabinet was hurriedly summoned into session late Wednesday to give its unanimous and pro forma approval to the Taba accord. Then, at 2 a.m. today, representatives of the two nations signed the agreement at Mena House, the hotel where the Israeli negotiators were staying. The Israeli Cabinet had already approved the main points of the agreement.
The signing of the accord, under which the two sides will submit their conflicting claims of sovereignty over Taba to binding international arbitration, was regarded as a victory for both Peres and for the United States, which mediated the 16-month-long talks and this week exerted heavy pressure on both sides to reach an agreement.
In Washington, the State Department issued a statement calling the long-delayed agreement a major success for both parties. "We are confident that the completion of the agreement on Taba arbitration will significantly further Egyptian-Israeli relations and enhance the atmosphere for the broader peace process," said the statement. "We call upon all parties to the Middle East conflict to follow this successful example and bring their differences to the negotiating table."
There was added pressure on the negotiators because, under the power-sharing arrangement holding together Israel's coalition government, Peres is due to trade jobs next month with his political rival, Foreign Minister Yitzhak Shamir, whose hard-line Likud Bloc is opposed to further territorial concessions in exchange for peace with other Arab states.
Peres Pullout Expected
Peres, however, is widely expected to pull his more moderate Labor Alignment out of the coalition at some future point and seek reelection as prime minister, a development Egypt would clearly welcome.
While it will take some time before the Taba dispute actually goes to arbitration--and the framework agreed to here gives the arbitrators another 18 months to conclude their deliberations--the Egyptians calculate that the normalization of Egyptian-Israeli relations resulting from the agreement will boost Peres' popularity and increase his chances of winning new elections.
However, senior Egyptian sources cautioned that, while relations will be restored to the ambassadorial level, it is unlikely that they will blossom after Shamir takes over as Israeli prime minister. "The cold peace," one official said, "is likely to become lukewarm, but nothing more in the foreseeable future."
The officials noted a number of reasons why Egypt, too, is unlikely to want any dramatic improvement in relations with Israel. In addition to the vocal domestic political opposition to improved ties with Israel, they said Mubarak is likely to feel constrained by concern that Israel will retaliate soon against Arab targets for the terrorist attack against an Istanbul synagogue Saturday that claimed the lives of 21 Jews.
The sources said the government was concerned that it might be placed "in the same embarrassing corner" as was the late President Anwar Sadat when Israeli jets destroyed an Iraqi nuclear reactor only days after the last Egyptian-Israeli summit meeting in 1981.
"That's what everybody is talking about now, that we'll have a meeting and then the Israelis will go off and bomb some place and there will be a big escalation of tension," one senior Egyptian source said. "Mubarak does not want and cannot afford that kind of embarrassment."
Even if that does not happen, Egypt's enthusiasm for improved relations with Israel has waned in recent months because of the virtual collapse of the broader Mideast peace process and concern that Arab-Israeli tensions will inevitably escalate when Shamir takes over, the sources said.