IN Cairo, where the leaders of Egypt and Israel will meet today for the first time in almost six years, Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin's election has given new momentum to behind-the-scenes coordination of the ongoing Middle East peace talks.
Mr. Rabin arrives here for several hours of talks with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, the only Arab leader to respond to Rabin's week-old offer to visit Arab capitals. Rabin was invited to Cairo after Israeli officials ordered a temporary freeze on new contracts for building in the occupied territories, where 110,000 Jews have settled since the land was captured in the 1967 Arab-Israeli conflict.
"The advent of Rabin has changed the stage dramatically," an Egyptian official close to the negotiations said yesterday. "Rabin accepts the logic of land for peace. He accepts the idea of autonomy for the Palestinians - for the people as well as their territories. And he is ready to introduce an embargo on the building of settlements. I call the change in Israel dramatic."
In spite of the official optimism, public opinion has appeared largely indifferent to the resumption of the Middle East peace process, as the average Egyptian struggles to cope with his country's worsening economic and security situation. Recent months have seen a resurgence of extremist violence, and, in response, a marked increase in state security measures.
The Rabin-Mubarak summit comes as US Secretary of State James Baker III tours the region in a bid to revive the slumbering peace process. He arrived in Israel Sunday and was to continue on to the Jordanian and Syrian capitals today. Mr. Baker will arrive here tomorrow for a report on Mr. Mubarak's summit with Rabin. Later in the day he will meet with King Fahd ibn Abdel Aziz al-Saud of Saudi Arabia.
As the mechanics of Middle Eastern diplomacy resumed this week, it appeared that the new Israeli government hopes to use Cairo as the vehicle for sending a strong signal to both Arab countries and the United States.
"Rabin says to himself, `Egypt is important. I have to send to the Arab world a message.' He speaks to the [Israeli parliament] with encouraging words and at the same time he decides to use the Egyptian connection," the Egyptian official said. "Both the Americans and the Israelis are playing, interacting together, vis-a-vis Egypt and the Arab world."
The nature of that "Egyptian connection" is still evolving. Egypt is not directly involved in Israel's talks with Syria, Lebanon, and a joint Jordanian-Palestinian delegation on Middle East peace. The last round of Arab-Israeli negotiations was held in Washington three months ago. Rome is the designated site for the talks to resume, possibly in September.
According to other senior Egyptian sources, Israel is pushing for a more direct Egyptian role in the bilateral talks. But the official close to the negotiations discounted that prospect, saying its participation would be restricted to back-door consultations.
At least officially, Egypt insists that it remains a member of "the Arab camp," regardless of its 1979 peace agreement with Israel that led to the return of Egyptian lands seized by Israel in 1967.
"We are among the Arab group, but we will help both sides, as we have done for the past two, three years," the official said. "We will also coordinate with the Americans because we know the Americans are the principal party to influence positions.
"Egypt will not negotiate with Rabin. This visit is a psychological move for the Israelis as well as the Egyptians and the Arabs," the official continued, adding, "an Israeli leader comes to Egypt shortly after the assumption of power - for his first visit abroad he goes to his neighbor."
According to the official, Rabin will explain his position to the Egyptians, "then Egypt will convey to Arab parties the situation as Rabin stated it.
"Egypt will be used as a soothing factor, to calm the fears and concerns of the parties. For example, if the Israelis are not sure of the Syrian position - their commitment - we can clarify. And the same for the Syrians regarding Israel's."
EARLIER this month, in preparation for the re-sumption of talks, Mubarak met with Syrian Foreign Minister Farouk al-Sharaa and Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) chairman Yasser Arafat. And last week King Hussein of Jordan met in Damascus with Syrian President Hafez al-Assad.
Both Jordan and Syria have rejected Rabin's offer to visit their capitals and his call for a meeting with them in Jerusalem. For the two countries, which demand return of captured territory, such a visit would give Israel implicit recognition of its legitimacy as a state. Neither country is yet ready to do so.
Syria has reacted coolly to the freeze on settlements. The official daily Tishreen said over the weekend that the move was "a maneuver aimed at securing loan guarantees of $10 billion from the US."
Yesterday the newspaper said that providing the loan guarantees could "severely harm the peace process, undermine Washington's credibility, and encourage Israel to adopt a more obstinate policy."
Syria has invited Jordan, the PLO, Lebanon, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Morocco to talks at the foreign-minister level in Damascus on Friday. Prior to the opening of the Middle East peace talks last October, Syria tried but failed to convince other Arab parties to adopt a common negotiating position. Damascus apparently fears that some form of Palestinian autonomy will emerge before Syria gains the return of the Golan Heights.