WASHINGTON — EGYPT'S President Hosni Mubarak describes Yitzhak Rabin with evident warmth. Israel's prime minister, he says, is a ''courageous'' man who is committed to peace. But as the two leaders met at the White House last week to celebrate a new Middle East peace, a reminder of old Middle East wars threatened to chill the Israeli-Egyptian relationship.
Israeli historians and military officers have alleged that Israeli soldiers killed hundreds of Egyptian civilians and prisoners-of-war during Arab-Israeli conflicts in 1956 and 1967. In an interview Saturday, Mr. Mubarak said he believed the damage from the reports could be contained but that Israel must first investigate and bring those responsible to trial.
''You opened the issue,'' Mubarak said he told Mr. Rabin on Thursday. ''We had no idea before you opened it, so you have to make an investigation.''
The alleged atrocities were reported last month but were muted by Egypt to avoid disrupting the final negotiations leading to the interim Israeli-Palestinian peace accord signed on Thursday.
As many as 800 Egyptians may have been killed, according to Israeli sources. The remains of between 30 and 60 were discovered two weeks ago near El Arish in the northern Sinai desert, intensifying public pressure on Mubarak to force Israel to make an accounting.
''People ask how, why? There are so many articles every day,'' says the Egyptian president. ''We can't just keep silent. This is a crime.''
An Israeli statute prohibits prosecuting capital offenses after 20 years. The law makes exceptions for genocide, including Nazi-related crimes. Mubarak insists that the 1949 Geneva Convention that codifies international law relating to armed conflict contains no statute of limitations. So far, Israel has not responded to Egyptian requests for an investigation.
''He told me to give him some time to think it over,'' says Mubarak of Rabin. ''So I'm waiting.''
In a conversation at Blair House, the presidential guest residence, a relaxed and upbeat Mubarak said the agreement signed Thursday brings peace between Israel and Palestinians to ''the point of no return.''
But he adds that the devil will be in the details of the agreement, which provides for a partial withdrawal of Israeli troops from the West Bank and elections for a new Palestinian Council.
If the agreement is implemented in good faith, Mubarak says, it will be easier to reach compromise on the harder issues that will be dealt with in talks on the final status of the West Bank and Gaza Strip beginning next May.
''If everything goes as it should, the people will relax. When they are relaxed, they will find good solutions,'' says Mubarak.
Mubarak played a crucial role in keeping weeks of intense negotiations from unraveling. During the final 10 days - ''It was a very difficult time,'' he says - he consulted frequently with Palestinian negotiators, dispatched emissaries to top Israel leaders, and personally received Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) president Yasser Arafat five times.
''Don't withdraw,'' he exhorted both sides. ''If you want to fight, pound on the table. The problem can only be solved at the negotiating table.''
Mubarak and Rabin first met in 1986, when Rabin was Israel's defense minister. Their productive working relationship was cemented six years later when Rabin visited Mubarak in Cairo three days after the start of the Israeli leader's current term as prime minister.
''When Rabin took office, this was the beginning of great hopes to me that the problem [between Israelis and Palestinians] would be solved,'' says Mubarak.
Asked about Israel's bitterest enemy, Mubarak said Iraqi President Saddam Hussein has not been weakened by the recent defection of two members of his inner circle, both sons-in-law.
''It didn't make a crack,'' says Mubarak flatly. ''It may have created problems in the family itself but this didn't shake Saddam Hussein.''
The 67-year old former air force pilot was named vice-president in 1975 and became president after Egyptian leader Anwar Sadat was assassinated in 1981.
US officials breathed a sign of relief when power was peacefully transferred, but are concerned that Mubarak himself has declined to select his own vice president.
''I've received so many letters from so many people saying, 'don't appoint a vice president as if you're appointing the next president,''' he says, explaining his decision.
Under Egypt's constitution, power passes to the speaker of parliament, who presides until elections are held. But with no obvious heir apparent, with Egypt's economy doing poorly, and with Islamic militants arrayed against the country's secular government, trouble could occur if Mubarak's term should come to an unexpected end, some diplomatic observers worry.
The issue was thrown into sharp relief last June, when gunmen attempted to assassinate Mubarak during a visit to the Sudan.
Critics say the Egyptian president does not want to confer power on a potential rival. Mubarak responds that few countries have vice presidents and insists that Egypt is stable enough to have a peaceful transition without one.
''There will be no trouble. There are institutions,'' he says. ''Nobody will be able to change them. The armed forces are responsible for implementing the constitution so nobody will have any room to play.''