Egypt today gave its formal backing to the initiative of Jordan's King Hussein for a U.N.-sponsored Middle East peace conference -- an initiative that differs significantly from the Camp David accords -- and urged other Arab states to join in support of it.
In a joint communique at the end of Hussein's state visit here, the Jordanian monarch and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak said they agreed "on the importance of convening an international peace conference under the supervision of the United Nations in which all parties concerned, including the Palestine Liberation Organization, would participate."
In addition, Mubarak gave his explicit support to the five-point plan for peace negotiations outlined by Hussein before the PLO's "parliament in exile," the Palestine National Council, in Amman Nov. 22. The plan was rejected by the PLO, which pledged itself, however, to continue talks with Jordan toward a joint peace negotiating position.
Hussein's plan is based on U.N. Resolution 242 -- which calls for Israel to relinquish the occupied territories in return for peace with its Arab neighbors -- and it urges participation of the PLO on an equal footing with all other parties, including the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council.
The communique also expressed the two leaders' full support for the PLO as "the sole legitimate representative" of the Palestinian people and said they would work together to achieve the Palestinians' "inalienable right to self-determination in the form they see fit."
In effect, Egypt appears to have accepted a sharp departure from the Camp David accords it signed in 1978 with Israel and the United States. These accords foresaw no role for the PLO in future negotiations and made no mention of the right of self-determination for the Palestinians.
Instead of an international conference, the accords called for negotiations among the three signatories over the future status of the Israeli-occupied territories, with Jordan and representatives of a self-governing authority set up in the West Bank and Gaza Strip joining the talks later.
Asked whether Egypt's backing for the Jordanian plan meant it no longer respected the Camp David accords, Prime Minister Kamal Hassan Ali replied: "We respect Camp David and we respect our signature on it, but within our own interpretation of it."
Ali cautioned that while there was now "some form of understanding" between Egypt and Jordan on how to solve the Palestinian problem, "the PLO has not decided anything regarding the method of solution, and it has not reached agreement with Jordan. All will depend on what decisions the PLO makes in the future."
In rejecting Hussein's plan and use of Resolution 242 as a negotiating basis, the PLO said last week it held to its position of rejecting any peace proposal that does not recognize the Palestinians' "right of return, right of self-determination and right to the creation of an independent Palestinian state."
Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres said in Jerusalem that Israel rejected Hussein's proposal for an international conference or any negotiations that included PLO representatives. He renewed his appeal for Hussein to open direct talks with Israel, however, Reuter reported.
Egypt's unqualified support for Hussein's plan surprised western analysts here because Mubarak and his top foreign affairs adviser, Osama Baz, have repeatedly expressed skepticism about the usefulness of calling for a U.N.-sponsored conference, given the vehement opposition of Israel and the United States.
Only yesterday, Baz told reporters who asked for clarifications about Egypt's attitude toward an international conference that it supported the idea but at a later stage.
"All the Arab countries agree in principle that an international conference can be useful at a certain stage to achieve a final settlement of the Palestinian problem," he said. "The question now is: until such a conference convenes, is it possible to make moves or not? How long should we wait before a conference is called?"
Baz called for "Arab unanimity on a formula for movement during the transition period" but he did not indicate what Mubarak had in mind other than Hussein's plan.
There was speculation that Mubarak had simply decided to go along with the Jordanian approach to a settlement at least until a more practicable formula could be devised.
Hussein's plan is almost identical to the views of Syria and the Soviet Union on a peace conference and could serve as a basis for overcoming Syrian opposition to the return of Egypt to the Arab League after its ouster five years ago for signing a peace treaty with Israel.
This could be another reason Mubarak decided to give his backing to the plan, hoping thereby to accelerate the process started by Jordan in late September of Arab countries restoring diplomatic ties with Cairo.