Behind an elaborate smokescreen of diplomatic exchanges and pronouncements, Shimon Peres and Hosni Mubarak accomplished the simple human task of getting to know each other a little better this week.
In personal terms, the cool, visionary Israeli prime minister and the hearty, guileless Egyptian president would seem to be an odd couple. But each pronounced himself encouraged by this initial round of probing, which had everything to do with renewing the lapsed Egyptian-Israeli political partnership and little to do with the proposals actually put forward.
Mubarak proved that old wine put in new bottles can be palatable if it has been a long time between drinks. For the most part, his proposals followed well-trod paths marked out in the Camp David peace accords. But his sense of timing and presentation jarred the diplomatic logjam of the Middle East.
Perhaps more importantly, Peres, about to begin only his sixth month at the head of a divided coalition government, showed considerable skill and shrewdness in bending Mubarak's amorphous proposals into shapes that helped him at home while minimizing criticism of Mubarak in the Arab world.
In separate interviews in Cairo and Jerusalem this week, each leader provided clues to his underlying motives in dispatching special envoys to the other and in publicly stressing the chances for progress in peace-making rather than dwelling on the enduring problems.
"We have to see what range of flexibility Mr. Peres has," Mubarak said, while savoring a hefty cigar in his office on Wednesday. "These problems can be solved in negotiations," he added insistently.
"I chose to respond on the positive side," Peres said 48 hours later in Jerusalem, acknowledging that the "spontaneous" way in which Mubarak had suddenly put forward differing proposals had left him a great deal of latitude. Peres spoke with detachment and gazed contemplatively at the haze of cigarette smoke he had lofted above the small coffee table in his office.
The conversational style of the two leaders is in fact a study in contrast. While Mubarak charges into each sentence, Peres carefully molds his phrases and has a genuine flair for aphorisms. A question about the Soviet Union gave him an opening to talk about Soviet concern over Star Wars, summarizing:
"The Russians wouldn't like to remain alone on this troubled earth and have American superiority in space. While they talk about global and local issues, their heads are in the stars."
He disposed of conflicting statements by Palestine Liberation Organization officials on Mubarak's peace proposals by saying the PLO's statements contain "a confusion that is close to camouflage." And of the Lebanese groups that welcomed and then turned against Israeli soldiers, he noted:
"It is not the flowers that go to the bees. It is the bees that are jumping from one to the other, either to get honey or to sting."
Mubarak indicated that the timing of his proposal had been influenced not only by his upcoming trip to Washington this month but also by Peres' timetable. "He needed some months to put his house in order," the Egyptian said. "He had sent me some oral messages, and I thought this was the time to respond."
While Mubarak has been able to consolidate gradually the hold on power he inherited from the late Anwar Sadat, Peres has had to hit the ground running since agreeing in September to turn over the prime ministership in two years to Yitzhak Shamir, head of the Likud coalition and now foreign minister. This was Likud's price for agreeing to the coalition government.
Peres at 61 is still trim and vigorous, but he shows the strain of a steady diet of 18-hour work days through flashes of prickliness and an air of fatigue.
Even those who are not fans of Peres credit him with a gritty, dedicated performance in the opening phase of his tenuous reign in trying to tame Israel's inflation-wracked economy, in moving decisively to end Israel's draining occupation in Lebanon, and by lowering political tensions in Israel and in its relations with Arab governments and the United States.
His ability to project himself as someone able to make peace with the Arabs and to get the United States to grant increased confidence and economic help to Israel would be an important asset when the moment comes, as is widely expected here, that he will provoke a break with Shamir and Likud and call early elections.
The fact that Mubarak's overture provided him with a domestic boost was indicated by the refusal of Shamir and other Likud officials to see anything good in it, just as Labor Party leaders played down the problems that developed as Mubarak shifted his ground on exactly what he was proposing.
But Peres found a way to turn that inconsistency to his advantage and to leave the way open for a more serious partnership between two men who apparently recognize the importance of helping each other out with public opinion. It was this kind of silent partnership that enabled Sadat and Menachem Begin to carry out the Camp David peace accords against strong domestic opposition. It collapsed when the Israeli Army invaded Lebanon in 1982.
This week, Peres was faced with a situation not unlike that of John F. Kennedy in the Cuban missile crisis of 1962, and he responded in similar fashion.
When the Soviet Union sent two conflicting messages on two successive days as the crisis seemed to be moving toward war or resolution, Kennedy answered the first, conciliatory message and ignored the second.
And this week Peres seized on the first of two conflicting statements Mubarak made to the press about his peace proposals. In statement one, Mubarak appeared to be emphasizing his support for direct Israeli-Jordanian negotiations -- a long-sought Israeli goal that would burnish Peres' image of being able to deal with Jordan's King Hussein.
And in like manner, when Mubarak clarified his proposal in later press statements to stress his support for PLO participation in a delegation that would talk first not to the Israelis but to the United States, Peres quietly turned it down without attacking Mubarak.
That role was left to Shamir and the Likud on the one side, and to PLO radicals on the other. Both stressed that Mubarak had simply repackaged the idea contained in the Camp David accords of having a joint Jordanian-Palestian delegation join Egypt and Israel in peace talks about the status of the disputed West Bank territory.
That idea was shelved when Hussein said he could not participate in the talks without the clear endorsement of the PLO, designated by the Rabat Arab summit meeting of 1974 as the "sole legitimate representative" of the Palestinians. The PLO has refused to give Hussein a clear endorsement, and apparently continues to do so.
Peres, who was a key figure in secret 1974 Israeli-Jordanian negotiations, repeated that he would open direct negotiations with Hussein without any preconditions now. But he appears resigned to the fact that the next major step is likely to be with Egypt, perhaps in the form of a summit meeting with Mubarak, rather than with Jordan.
If the summit meeting, which Mubarak said he was prepared to attend if more progress is made on Egyptian-Israeli and Palestinian issues, occurs, the two contrasting leaders will have at least one item of common interest to discuss. Mubarak was commander of the Egyptian Air Force before Sadat brought him into politics, and Peres was responsible for building up the Israeli Air Force, largely by establishing and managing for more than a decade a strong military relationship with France. The 1967 war undermined that relationship, and the United States replaced France as Israel's main source of arms.
Comparing him to other Israeli political figures, Peres' biographer, Matti Golan, asserts that Peres prefers "long-range unconventional solutions," and Golan describes him as "most of the time oscillating somewhere between relative realism and mind-boggling optimism."
Mubarak appeared to have brought out several of these characteristics this week.