'Cold peace' between Egypt, Israel begins to thaw

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

There are new signs that the cold peace between Israel and Egypt may be thawing. Should reconciliation between the two states occur, it might provide just the spark needed to rekindle the dormant Middle East peace process.

Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres Sunday told a Jewish charitable organization gathered in Jerusalem that he has invited Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak to meet with him ''on the frontier between our two countries.''

Mr. Peres said Mr. Mubarak had replied positively to the invitation, but had said that ''the ground must be prepared'' before such a meeting could occur.

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There are indications Egypt may be ready for the normalization of its relations with Israel.

Mubarak, bouyed by the rees-tablishment of diplomatic ties between Jordan and Egypt last month, is believed to be ready to pursue a regional peace initiative. He has a potential partner in Jordan, where King Hussein has followed up on his bold restoration of ties with Egypt by sanctioning the convening of the Palestine National Council (the Palestinian parliament-in-exile) in Amman Nov. 22.

But even if the King and Mubarak are hoping to join forces with the Palestinians to draw up a new peace proposal, they need to draw in the United States, the only power capable of extracting concessions from the Israelis.

One way to interest the Americans in a new initiative would be the normalization of relations with Israel. The United States has found itself stuck uncomfortably between the two nations since Egypt withdrew its ambassador from Tel Aviv to protest the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon.

American officials have indicated to the Egyptians that they would like to see progress toward reinvigorating the ''spirit of Camp David'' as a means of reassuring the Israelis that the peace is a sound one.

For some Israelis, the chilly relations with Egypt have meant they can never experience real peace with an Arab country.

But Israeli Cabinet minister Ezer Weizman, one of the architects of the peace with Egypt, placed much of the blame for the state of relations between the two nations on Israel.

The trouble is ''our diaspora ghetto complex,'' Weizman told an interviewer for the Hebrew-language Yedioth Aharanoth. ''Our total lack of faith in everything, verging on paranoia. We take singular joy in showing how everyone hates us. For years, we tried to find a way to talk with the Arabs face to face; but the minute we started talking to them, we were seized by fears, misgivings.''

Only a confident Israel could be expected to enter into any sort of negotiations that would determine the fate of the occupied West Bank.

Mubarak has insisted that the Israelis must withdraw from south Lebanon, settle their border dispute with Egypt over Taba in the Sinai, and show some progress in addressing the Palestinian issue before he will return the ambassador.

The Peres government can point to progress on each of those fronts. In Lebanon, the Israelis have opened talks with the Lebanese on a pullout of Israeli troops from Lebanese territory. Those talks have been temporarily suspended by the Lebanese in protest of the Israeli arrest of four leaders of the Shiite Amal movement in south Lebanon. But political observers here expect the talks to resume before the week is out.

In a recent interview, Mubarak said he now believed Israeli troops would be leaving south Lebanon.

On the Taba issue, Peres has indicated a willingness to resolve the dispute through legal conciliation procedures.

On the occupied West Bank, the government has indicated a commitment to improving the quality of life by allowing business investment and by liberalizing the policies of the military government.

Peres's speech was made within hours of an announcement by the prime minister's office that Moshe Sasson, Israel's ambassador to Egypt, has been recalled for consultations.

There was speculation in the Israeli press that Mubarak would soon send a personal envoy to meet with Peres in Jerusalem. An Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman refused to confirm or deny the reports.

The prime minister's public offer to meet with Mubarak outside Jersualem marked a departure from the policy of the past government that meetings between the heads of state of the two nations could take place only in their capital cities.

It indicated a willingness on the part of Peres to spare Mubarak the discomfort of visting Jerusalem when the Egyptian President is actively seeking to restore formal relations with his Arab brethren. All but three Arab nations broke diplomatic ties with Egypt in 1979 after it signed the Camp David peace treaty with Israel. Only Jordan has restored those ties.

The offer to meet on the frontier raised the possibility of the heads of state meeting in Taba, the tiny slice of the Sinai that both Egypt and Israel claim as their own. Another possible meeting place is Rafah, on the other side of the Sinai. The town was split by the redrawn Egypt-Israel border in the wake of the Israeli withdrawal from the Sinai.

Peres has been pursuing the Egyptians since he took office in September - to the consternation of some political critics who have argued that Peres has been embarrassingly eager in his courting.

The prime minister was taken to task during a Knesset session last month for having met more frequently with Egyptian charge d'affaires Mohammed Bassiouni than with any other foreign envoy. But Peres has doggedly continued his pursuit of the Egyptians.

''The conditions are now ripe for some improvement between the two nations,'' said Dr. Shimon Shamir, the recently returned head of the Israeli Academic Center in Cairo. ''But nothing concrete has happened so far. At the moment, it's wishful thinking.''

But several political observers agreed that repairing the tattered peace with Egypt is an essential first step toward any overall Middle East peace agreement.

''If we don't reach a settlement with Egypt, we won't reach one with anyone, '' Weizman said in the same newspaper interview. ''You, in your lifetime, won't reach any peace treaty with Jordan if you don't finish the business with Egypt.''

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