Twenty-four hours of high-level meetings here between Israeli and Egyptian officials ended today with an Israeli statement that the two countries will intensify their contacts in an attempt to revive the Mideast peace process.
Abdul Halim Baddaweh, a senior official of the Egyptian Foreign Ministry, met for an hour today with Prime Minister Shimon Peres and delivered a personal message to Peres from Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.
The meeting took place shortly after Osama Baz, the senior political adviser to Mubarak, left Israel in the early morning hours following a late night meeting with Peres and an early morning discussion with Peres and other senior Israeli officials.
The meetings were the highest-level contacts between Israel and Egypt in more than two years. They came in the wake of proposals on peace talks to resolve the Palestinian problem made by Mubarak earlier this week, but there were no signs they produced any dramatic breakthroughs in Middle East diplomacy.
Peres' press secretary, Uri Savir, said Baddaweh gave the Israelis a "full explanation" of the Mubarak proposals, but he would not answer questions on differences between the Egyptian and Israeli approaches to peace talks.
"We are ready for direct negotiations without preconditions," he said. "If Cairo is the place, we are ready to go to Cairo and to meet with the Jordanians, or a Jordanian-Palestinian delegation, provided that the PLO Palestine Liberation Organization is not part of it."
Israeli sources familiar with the talks were clearly encouraged by the developments, particularly a private meeting late last night between Peres and Baz. While the talks here were often dominated by troublesome bilateral issues that continue to divide Israel and Egypt, the sources said the meeting between Peres and Baz concentrated on "forward strategy" on the peace process along the lines of the Mubarak proposal.
The sources said they were convinced that Mubarak has embarked on a genuine diplomatic initiative and is not engaging, as some Israeli officials have suggested, in a "public relations ploy" before his scheduled trip to Washington in March. But they conceded that nothing "instantaneous" would come from this flurry of talks and that the process would be slow and painful.
Following today's session between Peres and Baddaweh, Savir said the talks dealt with "issues concerning improvement in relations between Egypt and Israel and the furthering of the peace process against the background of the recent proposals made by President Mubarak."
Savir said Peres "reiterated Israel's position in favor of direct negotiations with Jordan or with a joint Jordanian-Palestinian delegation without PLO participation.
"Both sides," the spokesman added, "recognize the need and urgency to further the peace process and will intensify the contacts between the two countries to achieve this aim."
As part of the intensification of Egyptian-Israeli contacts, Peres is to send Avraham Tamir, the director general of his office, to Cairo on Thursday for additional meetings with Egyptian officials, reportedly including Mubarak. Moshe Shahal, Israel's energy minister, was in Cairo today, where he saw Mubarak and other Egyptian officials.
The high visibility given to today's meeting between Peres and Baddaweh contrasted sharply with the cloak-and-dagger atmosphere that surrounded Baz' lightning visit to Israel. Baz reached Jerusalem last night by automobile after crossing the border at Rafiah. He was gone well before dawn, returning by automobile to the same crossing point.
Responding to questions, Savir said Israeli officials were "satisfied" by the talks because "evidently there is an intensification of contacts between the two countries. There are many bilateral issues and issues that concern the peace process that have to be explored by the two countries, and we would very much like to see that."