A determined Peres pursues improved ties with Egypt

Egypt and Israel will try to breathe new life into their six-year-old peace treaty. A team of Israeli officials is scheduled to leave Wednesday for Cairo, where talks are to be resumed on Taba -- the disputed strip of Sinai beach that both countries claim.

Prime Minister Shimon Peres and Foreign Minister Yitzhak Shamir reached an agreement Sunday to allow the talks to resume despite Mr. Shamir's reservations. Shamir, leader of the hard-line Likud half of the government, had said the talks should not be resumed until Egypt answers all of Israel's questions about the murder of seven Israeli tourists in Sinai by an apparently berserk Egyptian policeman in October.

But Mr. Peres's aides made it clear that their boss would not allow negotiations with Egypt to be further delayed, and Shamir chose to avert yet another Cabinet crisis over the issue.

In September, Israel and Egypt were on the brink of reaching agreement to send the Taba issue to arbitration in the context of a ``package deal'' that would see Egypt normalizing trade and tourism with Israel, sending back the Egyptian ambassador who was recalled in 1982, and agreeing to a summit meeting between Peres and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. But Egypt canceled the talks on Taba after Israel bombed the Palestine Liberation Organization's headquarters in Tunis Oct. 1. The Sinai shooting furt her strained ties.

Israel seemed prepared to put Egypt on a back burner temporarily, while pursuing prospects for negotiations with a Jordanian-Palestinian team on the fate of the Israeli-occupied West Bank. Hopes for preliminary talks have faded, however, because the parties seem unable to resolve the issues of an international framework for negotiations and appropriate Palestinian representation.

Peres now is reportedly determined to pursue what originally was his top foreign policy priority -- improving ties with Egypt, the only Arab state to have signed a peace treaty with Israel.

Gen. Abrasha Tamir, director-general of Peres's office and head of the delegation, insisted that Israel has never linked the Sinai incident to the resumption of the Taba talks, although he stressed that Israel still expects a full report from the Egyptians.

Egyptian Oil Minister Abdel-Hani Kandil visited Israel last week and delivered a message to Peres, reportedly stressing President Mubarak's desire to improve ties with Israel.

Peres said he regarded Mr. Kandil's statements on the Sinai incident as ``an interim report.'' Shamir said it was ``a step in the right direction,'' but did not satisfy all of Israel's questions.

Both Peres and Shamir have a stake in avoiding another Cabinet showdown on the issue, analysts here say.

Peres is unwilling to break up the coalition now, because he does not have the votes needed from the religious parties to form a narrow government. Shamir, for his part, remains determined to stay in the government until next October, when he will take over as prime minister from Peres.

But pressure to achieve a foreign policy breakthrough increases on Peres. His closest aides say only a clear-cut issue of peace will entice the pivotal religious parties to go with Peres in forming a narrow government without the Likud.

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