Egypt asserts need for PLO role in Mideast peace talks

Egypt still wants a ``seat'' for the Palestine Liberation Organization at an international peace conference, according to a high level Egyptian official. Osama Baz, director of President Hosni Mubarak's Bureau for Political Affairs, on Monday gave the first government confirmation that Cairo's position on PLO participation in peace talks hadn't changed despite its closure of PLO offices here three weeks ago. Widespread reports have suggested that Egypt and Jordan were ready to bypass the PLO in the peace process.

In a conversation with Western reporters, Dr. Baz also confirmed that attempts were under way to reconcile Egypt and PLO leader Yasser Arafat, but he said adequate steps had not yet been taken. He did not say what Egypt expected of the PLO.

Baz adopted a tolerant view of the decision by the Palestine National Council in Algiers in late April to cut back on relations with Egypt because of its peace treaty with Israel. He said its decision to give in to Syrian pressure was understandable because ``the PLO is functioning in exile'' and is ``dependent on the good will of many Arab governments.'' His comments were in sharp contrast to Cairo's fury three weeks ago.

``We should not deprive them of the chance to be tested'' in their ability to reach peace with Israel, Baz said of the PLO. Just because they succumbed to pressure, he said, ``this does not mean they do not deserve a seat .... They have not closed the door.''

Egypt considers that the prospects for an international peace conference this year are still alive, despite the inability of Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres to win a Cabinet vote in favor of a conference or to force new Israeli elections, Baz indicated.

He expressed the hope that the Israelis would still move toward a conference and said such prospects would be ``enhanced'' if the US took ``a more definite position on the desirability'' of the conference.

Egyptian backing for the PLO was clear from Baz's views on the next steps to be taken in the peace process. No further action is required of the PLO until preliminary steps have been taken by others, he said. First, Israel, the US, and the international community must agree to convene the conference. Then the PLO will have to reach a new formula with Jordan.

At Algiers, the PLO abrogated its 1985 accord with Jordan, which provided for joint Jordanian-Palestinian representation at peace talks.

If the PLO fails to work out a new formula, Baz said, then it ``will be missing the last wagon on the last train.... We are not going to sit around and watch the peace process be demolished.''

Jordan has been insisting that the PLO recognize UN Resolution 242, which implies recognition of Israel. Any new formula would still be likely to rule out PLO officials from direct participation, since Israel would veto them. But the Palestinian representatives would presumably be approved by Arafat.

Baz expressed the hope that the PLO leader would take the right steps. ``It's unlikely'' he said, that the PLO would be able to take part independently in any international conference. ``The only viable way is with Jordan.'

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