Israeli Cabinet minister Ezer Weizman returned from his controversial trip to Cairo today and expressed confidence that he had advanced the prospects of a summit conference between Prime Minister Shimon Peres and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in the relatively near future.
In a telephone interview, Weizman said he thought his two days of talks with Mubarak and other senior Egyptian officials had helped to "force the issue" of a summit conference as a means to improve the chilly atmosphere surrounding Egyptian-Israeli relations.
But Weizman, a minister without portfolio in the national unity government here, declined to speculate on how soon a summit conference may be held. Other senior Israeli officials said it could be in "a few weeks, or maybe a little longer," while there has been widespread speculation in the Israeli press that May is a tentative target date for a Peres-Mubarak meeting. "I don't want to talk about next month, but if things crystallize, even next month is possible," Weizman said in the interview.
The Weizman trip to Cairo, which Foreign Minister Yitzhak Shamir and other members of the right-wing Likud bloc in the national unity government unsuccessfully sought to prevent, appears clearly to have added impetus to the prospects for the first summit meeting between Egyptian and Israeli leaders since 1981. That has been a primary objective of Peres since he took office last September and is seen by his aides as a necessary first step toward a revival of the overall Middle East peace process.
While Weizman was in Cairo, the government here announced that it already had established a three-member working group to begin preparing Israel's positions for a possible summit. The Egyptians announced that they also were establishing a similar group.
However, Weizman cautioned that while he encountered "a lot of good will" in Cairo, there remain "a few mine fields" in the way of a summit conference and that "it's not easy."
"A lot of the arguments [in both governments] are internal," he added.
Weizman reported immediately to Peres after his return this morning and later met with Shamir.
The divisions within the Israeli government were evident from the flap over the Weizman trip, which was approved by a one-vote margin in the Cabinet only a few hours before he left for Cairo.
For the Israelis, a successful summmit conference would have to achieve three minimum goals: the return to Tel Aviv of Egypt's ambassador, who was recalled to Cairo following the 1982 massacre of Palestinian refugees in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps of west Beirut; progress in implementing "normalization of relations," a code phrase covering the host of trade, cultural and other agreements that grew out of the 1979 Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty; and a pledge by Egypt to restrain its press in what is seen here as an increasingly virulent campaign of anti-Israel articles and commentaries.
Previously, the Egyptians set three conditions for agreeing to a Peres-Mubarak meeting. The first was an Israeli troop withdrawal from Lebanon, which is expected to be completed next month. The second was an improvement in the living conditions of Palestinians in the Israeli-occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip, which the Peres government claims is being accomplished.
The third Egyptian condition was a resolution of the border dispute at Taba, a small strip of beachfront land at the northern tip of the Gulf of Aqaba that is claimed by both countries but has remained under Israeli control since the signing of the peace treaty. The Egyptians want the issue submitted to an international arbitration board, a procedure that is authorized by the peace treaty.
In an interview published today in the conservative Israeli newspaper Yediot Aharonot, Mubarak again emphasized the importance of the Taba issue to Egypt.
Mubarak said he has "a great deal of respect" for Peres and had already informed him that "I'm prepared to meet him any time." But the Egyptian president added:
"The Taba issue has become a national problem for us. All those who know where Taba is . . . keep asking, what about Taba? . . . I say: Let's agree on arbitration and set a date for the arbitration to be concluded. Then, at last, we'll be finished with this issue, which I see as a major obstacle to improving relations between us."
Peres is eager to dispose of the Taba issue and has made it clear he does not object to submitting it to arbitration. But as the head of a government evenly divided between his Labor Party and Shamir's Likud bloc, Peres' freedom of action on issues that touch on Israel's relations with her Arab neighbors is severely limited.
A senior aide to Shamir said the foreign minister is "very interested in improving relations with Egypt" and would have "nothing against" a Peres-Mubarak summit conference. But, the official added, "the question is whether Israel will be asked to pay a price for that. Then there could be problems.