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Middle East in Search of Partners

5 minute read
James Kelly

The visit was shrouded in deepest secrecy, its details known only to Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres, and a few top , officials. Early last week, Osama el Baz, Mubarak’s closest adviser, boarded a helicopter in Cairo and flew to the Egyptian border. He was driven to Jerusalem, where he went directly to Peres’ house. At the same time, Peres, who had been attending a Labor Party meeting, announced that he was not feeling well and left for his home. There the two men met for nearly five hours before el Baz slipped out of the back door at 1:30 a.m. and returned to Egypt.

El Baz’s get-together with Peres, the highest-level contact between the two countries since Israel’s 1982 invasion of Lebanon, was the most promising development in a sudden burst of diplomacy in the Middle East over the past three weeks. In the days following el Baz’s trip, two Israeli envoys visited Cairo while a second Egyptian official traveled to Jerusalem. Though the efforts could collapse at any time, the very fact that Mubarak and Peres were working together in the search for a Middle East settlement heartened diplomats in the region. In Washington, there was concern about the fragility of the latest initiatives, based most notably on the ability of Syria and militants within the Palestine Liberation Organization to scuttle any proposal, but Reagan Administration officials expressed willingness to play a part. “The U.S. is ready to resume its role as a full partner in the search for peace whenever all the parties are prepared to rejoin,” said Assistant Secretary of State Richard Murphy.

The purpose of el Baz’s trip to Jerusalem was to discuss a Mubarak proposal for talks between Israel and a joint delegation of Jordanians and Palestinians. The Egyptian President, who announced his plan last week, suggested that the U.S. first talk with the Jordanians and Palestinians in Washington. If such an encounter proved fruitful, the Arab team would negotiate directly with Israel, possibly in Cairo. An international conference under United Nations auspices then would be convened to approve any bilateral settlement.

After conferring with el Baz, Peres announced his support for the Mubarak initiative. Though major stumbling blocks remain, the Egyptians and Israelis reached an accommodation on the sensitive issue of the P.L.O.’s role. Peres accepted a formula in which Palestinians who are not “declared members” of the P.L.O. could take part in the talks. Peres, moreover, did not insist that the P.L.O. be forbidden to pick those Palestinians, thus giving P.L.O. Leader Yasser Arafat the opportunity to play a behind-the-scenes role. Peres, however, rejected the first stage of Mubarak’s plan–talks between the U.S. and a Jordanian-Palestinian delegation–on the grounds that Israel should not be excluded from any part of the negotiations.

Mubarak’s initiative grew out of an accord signed by Arafat and Jordan’s King Hussein in Amman last month. That agreement, which el Baz helped draft, is an ambiguous document that calls for a joint Jordanian-P.L.O. delegation to negotiate for Palestinian rights within “the proposed confederated Arab states of Jordan and Palestine.” Though the accord does not specifically demand the creation of a separate Palestinian state, it offers little incentive to Israel to enter negotiations. Hussein and Arafat call upon Israel to withdraw from all occupied Arab territory–the West Bank, Gaza, East Jerusalem and the Golan Heights–but do not promise to recognize Israel in return. While the accord vaguely alludes to a “comprehensive peace” based on U.N. resolutions, it does not specifically refer to Security Council Resolution 242, which implicitly acknowledges Israel’s right to exist within secure borders.

Barely had the Amman accord been made public when P.L.O. leaders began issuing reservations. Farouk Kaddoumi, an Arafat confidant, insisted on the creation of a separate Palestinian state. Ahmed Abdel-Rahman, Arafat’s spokesman, demanded that a unified Arab delegation, rather than simply a joint Jordanian-Palestinian team, negotiate with Israel. In a radio interview, Arafat said he appreciated Mubarak’s efforts, but insisted on an international peace conference rather than bilateral talks with Israel.

So far, Hussein has refrained from criticizing the Mubarak scheme. The Jordanian monarch, who was vacationing in Europe last week, is scheduled to meet with Mubarak in Egypt this week. Still stung by the rejection of the 1982 Reagan Middle East peace plan by Israel and much of the Arab world, U.S. officials remain skeptical that the Egyptian President can bring together the Israelis, Jordanians and Palestinians, with or without the P.L.O.’s blessing. Nonetheless, State Department officials look forward to discussing both Mubarak’s plan and the Hussein-Arafat accord with the Egyptian President when he visits Washington early next week. “What we see so far is just the beginning of a dialogue,” explains a senior U.S. official. “It is still going in different directions. It would be a mistake for us to get involved until the pattern is clearer.”

) At some point, that pattern will have to include Syria, which has the muscle to hinder any settlement attempt. The Syrian Cabinet last week declared its intention to undermine the Mubarak-Hussein-Arafat initiative. Anyone who doubts Syria’s resolve need only look at south Lebanon, where Shi’ite Muslims, inspired in part by Damascus’ tough line vis-a-vis Israel, continue to attack Israeli forces. The Israelis, who are in the midst of withdrawing from south Lebanon, retaliated last week by staging raids on several Shi’ite villages suspected of harboring guerrillas. Against the backdrop of such continuing violence in Lebanon, the peace efforts of Mubarak and Peres appeared to take on added urgency.

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