Prime Minister Shimon Peres met today with a personal envoy of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, reflecting the quickening pace of Middle East diplomacy.
The meeting, in which several other high-ranking Israeli officials participated for some of the time, was held in Peres' official residence. It began late last night and broke up at 1:30 this morning.
The Israelis had sought to keep the talks secret. But Uri Savir, Peres' press secretary, later said that the initial discussion would continue later today and that a formal statement would be issued at the conclusion. Savir did not identify the Egyptian envoy, but it was thought to be Osama el-Baz, Mubarak's senior political adviser.
Israeli officials said Peres first met with the Egyptian for two hours and they were then joined by Defense Minister Yitzhak Rabin, Ezer Weizman, a minister without portfolio who played a key role in the Camp David negotiations between Israel and Egypt, and Moshe Arens, a minister without portfolio and ex-defense minister.
Foreign Minister Yitzhak Shamir, the leader of the Likud bloc, the main partner with Peres' Labor Party in the national unity government, is in Europe.
No details of the discussion were made public, but the unusual night-time meeting came three days after Mubarak threw his support behind direct peace talks between Israel and a joint Arab delegation representing Jordan and the Palestinians.
The Egyptian president suggested that the United States host such a conference and offered Egypt's help in arranging it.
While some Israeli officials are skeptical of Mubarak's proposal, suggesting that it was linked to his planned visit to Washington next month and his hope of winning a large increase in U.S. aid, Peres' initial reaction was favorable. He said Mubarak's proposal "deserves a careful and positive study" and was a sign of "progress" toward a Middle East peace settlement.
The Israelis were encouraged by Mubarak's support for direct peace negotiations between Israel and a Jordanian-Palestinian delegation, and by the fact that he did not insist that the Palestinian representatives be members of the Palestine Liberation Organization. The Israelis maintain that only direct talks with their Arab neighbors can lead to peace, and have vowed never to negotiate with the PLO.
Whatever emerges from the talks here this week, the meeting in Peres' home represented something of a breakthrough in the Israeli prime minister's attempt to improve Egytpian-Israeli relations. It was the highest level contact known of since September 1982, when the Egyptians recalled their ambassador from Tel Aviv to protest the massacre of Palestinian refugees in Lebanon.
Shortly after making his proposal, Mubarak announced that he was sending an envoy to Israel and named el-Baz as his representative. The next 48 hours, however, were filled with contradictory reports from Cairo and statements by Israeli officials that they knew nothing definite about a planned visit. Last night, Israeli Foreign Ministry officials said they were unaware of the impending meeting.
Given Mubarak's public statements, it was not clear why a concerted effort was made to keep the meeting secret.