Egypt's determined push for a peace settlement with Israel has won the tacit support of key Arab states at a conference of Arab foreign ministers that ended here tonight.
Despite the expected criticism from Iraq and some reported Syrian reservations, the conference gave Egypt what it wanted: another three months to produce some results from its Amercian-oriented diplomatic campaign. Coupled with yesterday's signals from the Palestine Liberation Organization that it would accept a compromise on the critical issue of PLO representation at Geneva, the conference demonstrated to observers here that the so-called moderates who are willing to accept the existence of Isreal, and find a way to live with it, are still in the ascendancy.
The ministers set Feb. 15 as the date for an Arab summit conference, anticipating that by that time it will be clear whether there is to be a Geneva peace conference.
"We got another three months to produce something," an Egyptian delegate said, smiling. "That is what we asked for."
The tentative site for the summit is Tripoli, Libya, which is another indication of the starting return of respectability and acceptance among the Arab states that Libya has achieved through its conciliatory policies in recent months. Egypt, which fought a brief border was with Libya in July, still has reservations about a summit in Tripoli, delegates said, but Egyptian sources said it was possible these might be overcome through a visit to Cairo by the Libyan leader, Col. Muammar Qaddafi.
The foreign ministers of the two countries said today that they would reestablish normal relations.
Diplomatic observers had anticipated that some hardline Arab states might try to derail Egypt's campaign for peace with Israel during the conference. No real challenges emerged, delegates said, because of a general awarness that the diplomatic process in which Egypt is a leading performer has not yet failed despite the obstacles to a settlement. There was also a feeling that Egypt needs more time to persuade the Americans to put more pressure on Israel and time to work out a common negotiating position with Syria Jordan and the PLO.
The Egyptian foreign minister made it clear at the conference delegates said, that his country is committed to going ahead with this program. He is said to have told critics of Egypt's policy that the way for them to help was not by trying to sabotage attempts to reach a peaceful settlement but by contributing to the military and economic strength of Egypt in case peaceful means fail.
The next step in this process is a visit to Damascus on Wednesday by Egyptian President Anwar Sadat.
Egyptian delegates to the conference said they regard these talks as critical because, as one of them put it, "We and the Syrians agree on strategy but we do not yet agree on tactics. Egypt is more demonstrably anxious for a peace agreement than is Syria and the Syrians are known to be mistrustful of Egyptian motives.
The foreign ministers issued a communique that strongly attack Israel for its recent air raids into southern Lebanon, which the ministers described as "brutal."
They also called on all parties in the Lebanese conflict to honor the terms of the 1969 Cairo Agreement, which regulates the activities of Palestinian guerrillas in Lebanon and of all subsequent related agreements. This was understood to be a reference to the accord reached at the Lebanese town of Chtaura last summer, requiring the Palestinians to pull back from the Israeli border area.
Lebanese Foreign Minister Fouad Boutros admitted that the debate on this question had been heated as he argued with Palestinian delegates. The Palestinians have been reluctant to pull back from the Israeli border until they are satisfied that Israel and the Lebanese Christians will make related moves, Boutros told reporters, however, that their continued presence there raised the danger of new military action and new Israeli retaliation.
As expected, the foreign ministers avoided rancor and controversy by staying out of inter-Arab disputes they could do nothing about, such as the confrontation between Algeria and Morocco and the ideological quarrel between Iraq and Syria. Their final communique stressed the harmony and solidarity of the participants, a goal the Arabs have often espoused and this time seemed to actually approach.