JERUSALEM — News that a breakthrough in negotiations on the Taba border dispute has cleared the way for an Egyptian-Israeli summit meeting in Alexandria today was greeted with a mixture of relief and disappointment Wednesday night in Prime Minister Shimon Peres' office.
There was relief because the prime minister's staff had been working toward this meeting for well over a year, and there had been near-panic Tuesday when it appeared that prospects for the meeting had collapsed.
But there was also disappointment that, even though the meeting now seems set, it clearly will be a less pivotal event than Peres and his staff had hoped for.
"Israel's objectives are to agree on the agreeable and to establish a mechanism to continue dealing with the disagreeable," a senior official in Peres' office said of the summit, the first between the former enemies in five years. But he conceded there is now no hope that the summit meeting might become a vehicle for bringing Jordan into direct negotiations with Israel.
The perception here is that after King Hussein of Jordan decided to stay on the sidelines, the intensive discussions in Cairo over the last few days turned into more of a test of domestic political prestige for both Mubarak and Peres.
Mubarak did not want to appear too eager to meet with Peres, given the opposition in the Arab world to improved relations between Israel and Egypt. But at the same time Mubarak was under heavy American pressure to meet the Israeli leader.
Peres badly wanted a meeting with Mubarak as a crowning achievement just a month before he is due to exchange posts with Foreign Minister Yitzhak Shamir under the agreement that binds their rival parties in the national unity government. But Peres had come under widespread criticism for courting Mubarak so desperately that he risked embarrassing himself and his country.
"At the moment, there is no winner," Nahum Barnea, editor of the political weekly Koterit Rashit, said in an interview. "Mubarak will appear a little better in the United States, and Peres will appear a little better in Israel. But the great beginning toward a new peace initiative is nowhere in sight."
Other Israeli analysts were slightly more upbeat.
"The summit is going to better the relations between us and Egypt," a senior Foreign Ministry official said. "But somebody who thinks this will be a big leap forward in the peace process--I think this is wrong. The fundamentals are the same. They can't change overnight."
Peres' aides said the Israeli leader still intends to bring some new ideas on the peace process to the summit meeting, ideas the prime minister will review with senior government ministers in a Cabinet meeting scheduled for 8 a.m. today.
But the most they apparently hope to get out of the summit is a joint statement on the need to pursue the peace process that would possibly mention some alternate avenues along which to proceed.
At one time, Peres aides were talking about a summit meeting being followed quickly by a meeting between the Israeli prime minister and King Hussein. At least, they said, they hoped for some kind of a joint statement out of the summit meeting, endorsed by the king, setting the stage for a preparatory Mideast peace conference.
U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Richard W. Murphy began shuttling between Jerusalem and Amman 10 days ago in an effort to pave the way. Had the climate seemed right, he was to have alerted Secretary of State George P. Shultz to give the peace process a boost by joining Peres and Mubarak in Alexandria.
But Hussein proved recalcitrant, and Egyptian-Israeli negotiations over the terms of arbitration of the Taba dispute bogged down.
Instead of brokering some new advance in the peace process, Murphy "found himself saving (the Taba talks) from total collapse," a senior Peres aide said.
As the Taba talks slogged on this week, the mood in Israel turned from relatively neutral toward the idea of a summit to mildly hostile.
"We breathed a sigh of relief" Tuesday afternoon when Peres said no to concessions and ordered the Israeli delegation in Cairo to return home, the newspaper Yediot Ahronot said in an editorial.
"For the sake of our pride and that of the Egyptian president," the editorial went on, "it would be best to delay the summit and hold it at a later, less pressured date. Who needs a wasted, slapdash summit devoid of positive developments?"
But Peres said in an interview last weekend that if the summit were not held this week, it would be difficult to reschedule it before the rotation with Shamir. And if it fell through, he warned, it could deal a severe blow to hopes for progress toward regional peace.
When it appeared Tuesday that the negotiators in Cairo would not be able to complete a Taba arbitration agreement, a knowledgeable Israeli source said "there was panic in the prime minister's office."
At stake, an aide to the prime minister said, was not just the summit meeting but hopes that Peres might one day win an Israeli mandate to make concessions for peace with the Arabs.