Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak may be able to improve relations with moderate Arab states such as Saudi Arabia without abandoning Egypt's commitment to peace with Israel, the State Department's top Middle East officer told Congress yesterday.
Nicholas A. Veliotes, assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern and South Asian affairs, said "there is a scope for reconciliation up to a certain point" between Egypt and other Arab nations. He said it is unlikely, however, that a rapprochement would go as far as the restoration of formal diplomatic relations.
According to Veliotes, the Egyptian government has told Washington that an improvement in relations with Arabs would not be at the expense of basic policy on the peace process with Israel. He expressed confidence that the Sinai will be returned to Egypt on schedule next April and a belief that an agreement on Palestinian autonomy on the West Bank can be completed within a year.
Veliotes appeared before the House Foreign Affairs subcommittee on Europe and the Middle East, whose chairman, Rep. Lee H. Hamilton (D-Ind.) criticized a "disproportionate emphasis" in the administration on military and security questions compared to the forging of peace through political means.
Veliotes conceded that U.S. efforts to work with Arab nations in the security field are being "very seriously inhibited" by their perception that progress is lacking in the peace effort. He defended the administration's emphasis and attention given to military-related action as necessary to assure jittery Arab nations that they can depend on the United States.
In the most extensive public report to date on U.S. efforts to organize a multinational peace-keeping force to police the Sinai, Veliotes said the European Economic Community has "agreed in principle" to participate, but has left each of its 10 nations to decide how and whether to implement this general resolve.
"We are very optimistic," Veliotes said, that several major European countries will agree to take part in the Sinai force, which would patrol the area to be returned by Israel to Egypt next April.
He described France, Italy and England as showing encouraging interest, said Holland and Canada are exploring participation and reported that Australia is "prepared to participate" if the Europeans do. No final word has been received from any of these countries, he reported.
The potential participation of European nations, disclosed early this week by French President Francois Mitterrand, was linked by Veliotes to the assassination of Egyptian president Anwar Sadat. The State Department official said that the European countries had been formally asked only recently to participate in the Sinai force and that their consultation on the issue was "telescoped" after Sadat's death.
Several of the lawmakers unsuccessfully pressed Veliotes to define U.S. policy toward Saudi instability in the light of President Reagan's public declaration that Saudi Arabia will not be permitted to become "another Iran."
Veliotes said the administration does not foresee having "to save the Saudis from themselves," but he would not say what the United States would or could do if faced with the problem.
Reagan's statement was designed to reassure friendly nations that the United States will be "a reliable partner" in the long run, Veliotes said. "I wouldn't read anything more into it."