Egyptian Foreign Minister Esmat Abdel Meguid kicked off his three-day visit to Israel yesterday by declaring that Egypt wholeheartedly supports the convening of an international peace conference to resolve the Arab-Israeli dispute. ``My message to the Israeli government and to the people is about the urgency for peace,'' Mr. Abdel Meguid said on arrival. ``The only way to reach that end is through convening an international conference under UN auspices. ... This is a unique opportunity. Let us not allow it to slip away.''
With that statement, Abdel Meguid appeared to dash Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir's hopes of persuading him that an international conference is not a suitable forum for Israel to negotiate peace with Jordan and the Palestinians.
Mr. Shamir's aides have said the prime minister intends to propose that Israel and Egypt work jointly to convene a ``regional peace conference.'' As envisioned by Shamir, such a conference would bring Israel, Egypt, Jordan, and the Palestinians to the negotiating table under the auspices of the United States.
Jordan's King Hussein has said repeatedly that he could only negotiate directly with Israel under the auspices of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council.
But if there is little prospect that Shamir can change Egypt's position, it is also unlikely that Abdel Meguid will persuade the prime minister to support the conference idea. Shamir and other members of his hard-line Likud bloc have labeled the conference idea a danger to the existence of the Jewish state.
Israeli Foreign Ministry sources say they do not expect any significant diplomatic breakthroughs to come out of this visit.
``The greatest significance of the visit is simply that it is happening and that the Egyptians wanted it to happen,'' a senior Foreign Ministry official says.
Abdel Meguid is the first Egyptian foreign minister to visit Israel in six years, and his trip comes on the heels of a July 9 meeting between Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres in Geneva.
Senior Egyptian officials interviewed in Cairo earlier this month said then that Mr. Mubarak had decided it was up to Jordan and Egypt to keep the momentum for an international conference going while Israel worked out its own internal differences on the question.
Mr. Peres supports the notion of an international conference as the only vehicle for negotiations between Israel and a Jordanian-Palestinian team. But because the Israeli Cabinet is split in half between Peres's centrist Labor Party and Shamir's rightist Likud bloc, Israel has taken no stand on the international conference proposal.
In addition to talks with Peres, Shamir, and other Israeli officials, Abdel Meguid will meet with prominent Palestinians from the Israeli-occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip. A tentative list of the Palestinians he has asked to see is top-heavy with men considered to be outspoken supporters of the Palestine Liberation Organization.
Egypt closed all PLO offices in Cairo last May, after the PLO adopted what Mubarak viewed as an anti-Egyptian resolution during the Palestine National Council meeting in Algiers.
Although Egypt and the PLO are barely on speaking terms, Egyptian officials maintain that the PLO - considered by Palestinians and the Arab world to be the sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people - must have a role in any peace negotiations between Israel and the Arabs.
Pro-Jordanian and pro-PLO Arabic newspapers published in East Jerusalem yesterday welcomed Abdel Meguid's visit and praised Egypt's championing of Palestinian rights.
``The position of Egypt on the Palestinian problem and on the representation of Palestinians is one of the clearest stands,'' editorialized the pro-PLO Al Quds. ``Egypt's policy is based on the necessity of solving the Palestinian problem in all its aspects, taking into consideration the legitimate national rights of the Palestinian people, and the most important of those, their right of self-determination and of selecting their own representatives.''
The pro-Jordanian An-Nahar newspaper views Abdel Meguid's visit as indirectly criticizing the PLO. It points out that ``Cairo adopted peace as a long-lasting strategy, and Egypt was and still is the guardian of Palestinian rights. Everybody knows what Egypt has accomplished by adopting this strategy. It managed to get back its occupied territory, its sovereignty over Sinai. There is no meaning now to the term the `occupied Egyptian territory' in Egypt's political dictionary.''
The praise for Egypt and Abdel Meguid from Palestinians in the occupied territories seems to bolster Egypt's claim that, by signing a peace treaty with Israel in 1979, Egypt put itself in the position of acting as a bridge between Israel and the rest of the Arab world.