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Analysis : Egypt, Israel: Neither Can Afford Genuinely 'New Era' Ties Right Now

September 13, 1986|MICHAEL ROSS | Times Staff Writer

ALEXANDRIA, Egypt — For all the talk about the dawn of a "new era" in their relations, the first meeting in five years between the leaders of Egypt and Israel appears to have produced little in the way of specific achievement.

Indeed, the long and rancorous negotiations that led up to the summit seem to have added more mistrust and ill-feeling to the relationship than Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres were able to erase in their day of talks in the Egyptian port city of Alexandria.

According to a joint statement read to reporters by Egyptian Foreign Minister Esmat Abdel Meguid at the end of the talks, the meeting marked the beginning of "a new era in bilateral relations between Egypt and Israel as well as in the search for a just and comprehensive peace in the Middle East." The statement said that Mubarak and Peres have designated 1987 as "a year of negotiations for peace" and called on other parties in the region to renew their efforts for peace.

But the statement, long on generalities and short on specifics, was a last-minute substitute for a longer and more detailed statement that could not be issued because of disagreements over how to deal with the Palestinian problem and other deeply contentious issues standing in the way of the long-stagnant peace process.

An Israeli source said efforts to draft a more specific statement were blocked by Egypt's insistence on including a reference to the "rights of the Palestinians to self-determination within the context of a confederation with Jordan."

"That's PLO language and we could not accept it," the source said.

"It's the same old story, the same old question," another Israeli official added, referring to the Arab-Israeli impasse over including the Palestine Liberation Organization in the peace process.

The two sides did find themselves in broad agreement on the role of an international peace conference as a symbolic umbrella and a step toward direct negotiations involving Israel, Jordan and some yet-to-be-established Palestinian representative, sources at the meeting said.

They also agreed in principle on the need to set up a preparatory committee for further talks on the idea of an international conference. But they were unable to fix either a framework or a timetable for further talks, leaving the impression that the Alexandria meeting ended in a diplomatic version of "but we must get together for lunch some time."

In fact, relations between Egypt and Israel are very likely to remain where they are. On the eve of the meeting, senior Egyptian officials and diplomatic sources in Cairo cautioned that they foresaw no dramatic improvement in Egyptian-Israeli relations, no real thaw in the "cold peace" that has characterized relations between the two Camp David peace signatories since the Israeli invasion of Lebanon four years ago.

On the Egyptian side, one reason for the reluctance to improve relations at this time is Cairo's concern that Israeli Foreign Minister Yitzhak Shamir will adopt a much harder line toward the peace process and a more aggressive policy of expanding Jewish settlements on the West Bank when he takes over from Peres as prime minister in a scheduled government rotation next month.

Domestic Considerations

"With Shamir, the expectation is that relations will become worse rather than better," a senior official in Cairo said.

In addition, domestic considerations on both sides weigh against any true rapprochement at this time, analysts said. On the Israeli side, Peres is widely believed to be maneuvering toward new elections with the aim of becoming prime minister again as soon after the rotation as possible. He cannot afford to be seen as over-eager to make politically unpopular concessions to Egypt right now, Israeli sources conceded.

Mubarak faces a similar situation. Weakened by a worsening economic crisis that has emboldened his anti-Israeli opposition, he cannot afford to appear to be bowing to American pressure to improve ties with Israel without receiving Israeli concessions on the peace process in return.

"Each side has something it would like to sell the other, but neither can afford the price right now," one analyst said.

A third constraint is the question of Taba, now set aside but still unresolved. Taba is the contested sliver of Red Sea beachfront that Israel retained when it returned the rest of the Sinai Peninsula to Egypt in 1982. After months of bitter and mutually recriminatory negotiations, Egypt and Israel finally agreed earlier this week to submit their conflicting claims of sovereignty over Taba to international arbitration, a process that is expected to take at least 18 months.

Cairo is confident of its case, but senior officials admit that the worst thing that could happen to Mubarak would be for Egypt to lose Taba, or any part of it, should the arbitrators decide in favor of Israel's claims. "The impact (of losing Taba) would be devastating to this regime," an Egyptian Foreign Ministry official said.

Related to these factors but perhaps going deeper is the general mistrust and mutual disenchantment that have built up between the two sides in recent years.

The mistrust was reflected in the subdued welcome accorded to Peres. It was almost as if the Egyptian hosts were trying to hide the history they were making. Mubarak was on hand for neither the official arrival nor the departure ceremonies. The ceremonies were correct but brief, and Egyptian Prime Minister Ali Lutfi was grim-faced as he stood beside Peres while the national anthems of both countries were played.

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