President Hosni Mubarak said today he was encouraged by a continuing flurry of high-level contacts between Egypt and Israel and called on the United States to lend its weight to new Middle East peace efforts.
"The United States is a superpower. The United States cannot continue to sit with its hands folded" as both Israel and moderate Palestinians show increased flexibility, the Egyptian leader said in an interview. Moments before, he had received an Israeli Cabinet minister and shortly afterward he dispatched the third envoy he has sent to Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres in the past week.
The developing dialogue is the most serious Israeli-Egyptian exchange since the 1982 invasion of Lebanon cast a pall over the U.S.-sponsored peace treaty that links the two former enemies and caused Egypt to halt high-level contacts with Israel. Mubarak said the exchange had helped persuade him that Peres "wants to be much more flexible" in seeking peace than were his predecessors, Menachem Begin and Yitzhak Shamir.
In the wide-ranging interview, one of a series of press declarations Mubarak is making as he prepares for an official visit to Washington in 10 days, the Egyptian president specified that the exchanges with Peres primarily concern "bilateral relations" between the two countries, including deadlocked negotiations over the return of a four-acre strip of land at Taba, a coastal resort on the Gulf of Aqaba, to Egyptian sovereignty.
Mubarak made these other points as he spoke comfortably in English:
* The next step in the renewed search for peace should be to establish a dialogue between the United States and a joint Jordanian-Palestinian delegation that Egypt is helping form. Israel should join these talks at a later stage, he specified.
* High interest rates charged by the United States on previous military purchases are damaging Egypt's economic recovery efforts and should be lowered or eliminated. Mubarak said that this would be an important item in his talks with Washington. He said he would welcome a U.S. decision to forgive outstanding loans to Egypt for military purchases, which total about $4 billion. He acknowledged Egypt was in arrears on interest payments to the United States.
* An Egyptian offer to build a Red Sea military base that would be funded by the United States and used by American forces in the event of a Middle East crisis has been shelved because of American insistence that American firms be involved in constructing the base.
* Mubarak took issue with calls by Secretary of State George P. Shultz and other U.S. officials for preemptive or retaliatory strikes against terrorist groups by warning that "violence will create more violence. More violence will create more terrorism."
* While careful to voice no criticism of his predecessor, Anwar Sadat, Mubarak did suggest that his government has successfully ridden out the wave of Islamic fundamentalism that led to Sadat's 1981 assassination and has reduced social tensions by allowing opposition political parties to reemerge as political safety valves.
Mubarak declined to go into detail about the series of meetings he initiated last week by sending a senior Egyptian legislator to Bucharest to meet with Peres.
He also dispatched his political affairs adviser, Osama Baz, and a ranking Foreign Ministry official on separate trips to Israel this week.
Israel's energy minister, Moshe Shahal, met with Mubarak this morning.
The Egyptian leader's remarks made clear, however, that he sees a fresh opportunity to improve relations with Israel created by the arrival of the Labor Party's Peres at the top of a coalition government, the beginning of a complete Israeli withdrawal from Lebanon and movement by the Palestine Liberation Organization toward a full acceptance of Israel.
"I am explaining my point of view on bilateral relations, mainly, and also on the problems of the Middle East," Mubarak said of his overtures to Peres. "We are discussing the problem of Taba. I think Mr. Peres wants to be much more flexible. And I met with his minister of energy this morning and we talked of this problem."
Mubarak expects to arrive in Washington on March 9 also bolstered by a meeting next Wednesday in Egypt with Jordan's King Hussein, whom Peres has offered to meet for direct talks on the status of the Israeli-occupied West Bank.
Asked if he would urge Hussein to invite Peres to come to Jordan, Mubarak replied, "It's too early to say that. But I have to discuss this with Hussein. These things should take preparation."
Instead, Mubarak insisted that the first step in getting peace talks underway should be the opening of contacts between the United States and "moderate Palestinians" who may soon be named to a joint Jordanian-Palestinian delegation.
His repeated emphasis on this point appeared to reflect an unvoiced concern that recent splits within the PLO imperil not only Yasser Arafat's leadership, but the very existence of the organization itself. Syria has been supporting an armed uprising by Palestinian dissidents against Arafat's authority.
The United States has, since 1975, refused political contacts with the PLO unless it renounces terrorism and accepts U.N. Security Council Resolution 242, which calls for recognition of Israel in return for evacuation of Arab land occupied in the 1967 Arab-Israeli war.
Mubarak made a similar appeal a year ago in Washington to President Reagan to drop the bar on contacts with the PLO without any success.
This year he apparently hopes that the deadlock can be broken through a formula agreed upon Feb. 11 by Hussein and Arafat, in which the PLO leader agreed to the formation of a joint delegation with Jordanians and accepted the principle of a "comprehensive peace" based on "Security Council resolutions."
Both U.S. and Israeli officials have noted that the agreement does not specifically accept the key Security Council Resolution 242 by name, and that PLO officials have repudiated portions of the agreement with Hussein.
Saying that the Palestinians named to the delegation would be "moderate people who can talk sense, who speak logic," Mubarak urged the United States and Israel not "to put Arafat in a difficult position" by insisting on specific mention of Resolution 242 now. "Be realistic," he said. "During the negotiations this could be solved. Give them some confidence. They need confidence. They are afraid to lose everything."
Mubarak's comment apparently referred to his hope that the United States will invite the joint delegation, including PLO members, to Washington for talks.
During the 90-minute interview in his small, neat office in the Orouba Palace on the western outskirts of Cairo, the former Air Force commander who succeeded Sadat in 1981 enlivened the conversation with flashes of irony and broad humor.
But he brought deep emotion to his discussion of the desperate economic plight faced by Egypt in trying to rebuild a national infrastructure eroded by decades of neglect and mismanagement. He clearly is pinning much of his hope for this effort on increased aid and understanding from the United States.
Egyptian officials complain that nearly half of the $800 million given this year in U.S. economic aid must be immediately repaid to Washington as interest on the $3.7 billion in outstanding military loans. Such U.S. loans are currently believed to carry interest rates around 13 percent.
He openly acknowledged that Egypt is about $250 million in arrears on interest payments on loans granted to purchase military equipment from the United States.
"We could pay it," he said. "But it would be at the expense of the social and economic welfare of the people of Egypt. Does the United States want that? The military debt is creating problems for our economic plan. I need the help of the United States not to put me in a difficult position."
Noting that Egypt would soon pay $62 million of the late interest payments, Mubarak said he would speak frankly to Reagan about the problem of the loans, and make a request for increased economic and military aid.
"Whenever there is a supplement for the Israelis I think why not give us one also. We are both participating in the peace process," said Mubarak.
"A strong Egypt is a good support for the United States," he argued, saying that it was better for the United States to build up allies like Egypt than to deploy American troops in the region.
Asked about the failure of the Reagan administration and his government to reach agreement on building a Red Sea base that Egypt had offered to let American forces use in the event of a Middle East crisis, Mubarak said that the United States had insisted on American firms doing the construction work at Ras Banas, the projected site of the base.
"I said, give me the money as a grant. I will build it for Egypt and when you need facilities, we are not against that." But Egyptian law made it "difficult" for any foreign firms to work in military areas, Mubarak said, and the political side effects, as a result, could be harmful for U.S. interests.
"Alas, the impressions and the rumors which will be used against the United States, you will have lots of problems, and I don't want to lose American friendship for Egypt and the special relationship with Egypt," Mubarak said.
The United States will be able to use Egyptian facilities to deploy troops into the region now only if Egypt is requested by another Arab or Islamic government to allow this, said Mubarak. He asserted that Sadat had set exactly the same condition, but such a condition would have ruled out the United States using Egyptian facilities in the failed 1979 rescue mission into Iran.