The Egyptian government today backed away from supporting the much-discussed Saudi Arabian Middle East peace initiative as a viable alternative to the Camp David peace process in what was seen as a clear effort to ease Israeli worries about recent ambiguities in Egypt's position.
Speaking on the eve of a resumption of ministerial-level talks here between Egypt and Israel over the question of autonomy for the Israeli-occupied West Bank of the Jordan River and Gaza Strip, a key Egyptian Foreign Ministry official said that while the Saudi plan was a "positive development," it is only a collection of ideas for debate, not an actual proposal for negotiations.
"We believe the viable formula for solving the Middle East problem remains the Camp David accords," Osama Baz, the first undersecretary of the Foreign Ministry, said in an interview with three U.S. correspondents here. "This is the only formula that has been accepted by Israel and as such it is a formula that has a chance of being implemented."
The statement by Baz, President Hosni Mubarak's personal foreign policy adviser, was made in clarifying Mubarak's remark to a Kuwaiti newspaper over the weekend that while Egypt believed in the primacy of the Camp David accords with Israel, "still we wish that all parties to the conflict would accept Saudi Arabian Prince Fahd's statements."
The Saudi Arabian peace initiative has been dubbed the "Fahd plan" because it was the Arabian crown prince who first unveiled the eight-point proposal for a Middle East peace last summer. The plan envisages, among other things, a total Israeli withdrawal from Arab lands occupied in the 1967 war, a removal of all Israeli settlements in the occupied territories, an independent Palestinian state with Arab East Jerusalem as its capital and the mutual agreement of all states in the region to live in peace.
The plan, especially the point implying the first recognition of Israel by Arab states other than Egypt, has aroused increasing interest in the Middle East, Europe and even the United States, much to the chagrin of Israel. Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin has said the Saudi plan is nothing more than a scheme to "liquidate" the state of Israel.
The Fahd plan, however, has put President Mubarak in a quandry. Although he appears sincere in his determination to adhere to the terms of Egypt's 1977 Camp David peace treaty with Israel, Mubarak is also eager to move Egypt out of its isolation in the Arab world.
In his statement today, Baz said that while Egypt considers the Saudi initiative a constructive step in the overall debate about a final and comprehensive Middle East settlement, Egypt did not feel that it had to take a stand for or against Fahd's proposals.
"They the Saudis did not submit a formal, well thought-out, carefully worded draft," Baz said of the Fahd plan, "but rather some informal remarks thrown out for the purpose of stirring interest in debate rather than concluding a settlement."
"The Saudi formula is confined to a restatement of some general principles such as United Nation Resolution 242 and subsequent General Assembly positions," he added. "But it is not a comprehensive plan, and certainly it does not state clearly the forms or modalities that could lead to the implementation of its principles."
Because Israel has adamantly rejected the Fahd plan, Baz noted, there could be little hope for now that the Saudi proposals would become a basis for new negotiations with Israel.
The Egyptian official said, however, that his government "welcomed" the Saudi proposals as an important contribution by a major Arab state to the overall "dialogue on a solution to the Arab-Israeli dispute."
Baz said the Saudi contribution could become an important element of future discussions, presumably after -- and if -- Egypt and Israel can agree to a general framework for West Bank autonomy in their bilateral talks. When that is accomplished, the provisions of the Camp David accords provide for a second stage of negotiations on a final settlement of the Palestinian question that would include other Arabs, specifically the Palestinians themselves.
"It is not likely that Saudi Arabia would participate directly, but they could be very helpful in negotiations with other Arabs participating," Baz said. "While we remain committed to the letter and spirit of the Camp David accords, we recognize the need to supplement these texts by more details and at times other formulas" through the introduction of other Arab proposals.
"So we are not talking here of an alternative to Camp David or a deviation from the Camp David formula," Baz said. "We are talking of widening the scope of the negotiations."