For the first time since 1982, Egyptian tour groups are visiting Israel and Egyptian businessmen are being granted import licenses for Israeli goods, representing a small break in the "cold peace" that has prevailed since Israel's invasion of Lebanon.
While Egyptian officials deny any special significance to the moves, an Israeli Embassy spokesman this week described them as a hopeful sign that relations between the two countries will improve further.
"Both parties are trying to improve relations and this is one of the sore points the Egyptians had to mend," said Isaac Bar-Moshe, press counselor of the Israeli Embassy here, adding, "I hope they will continue."
It appears the measures are connected to Egyptian-Israeli talks on the issue of Taba, a half-mile stretch of coastline south of Eilat on the Gulf of Aqaba, which remains the major stumbling block to more far-reaching normalization between the two countries.
The two sides conducted discussions on Taba in the spring, and shortly thereafter, without fanfare, the first busload of 23 Egyptian tourists was on its way to Israel.
Since that group left in late June, about five others have followed, and permission for individual Egyptians to travel to Israel, once nearly impossible to obtain, is now being granted. According to Bar-Moshe, Egyptian authorities have informed the Israeli Embassy that Egyptian businessmen are now being allowed import licenses for Israeli goods, though the actual importing of Israeli products could not be confirmed.
The normalization process laid down in the Camp David accords -- including commercial and cultural links and encouragement of bilateral tourism -- was halted by Egypt when it recalled its ambassador from Tel Aviv following the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982 and the massacre of Palestinian refugees in two camps in west Beirut. Since then, the Egyptians have required an Israeli troop withdrawal from Lebanon -- now largely completed -- and arbitration on the Taba issue as conditions for resuming the normalization process.
Abdul Halim Badawy, assistant foreign minister who headed the Egyptian delegation to the Taba talks, described the recent Egyptian measures as "a very normal development" and warned, "Don't read too much into them."
Though he would not directly confirm a connection between the Taba discussions and the measures, he said, "Yes, it coincided with the resumption of discussions in Taba. Israel had refused to open the Taba file before. So, okay, let's talk."
Cairo has long insisted that the Taba dispute be settled by international arbitration, which it is generally believed that Egypt would win. The call for arbitration has led to disagreement within Israel's coalition government. While Prime Minister Shimon Peres supports submitting the issue to arbitration, his partner in the national unity government, Foreign Minister Yitzhak Shamir, rejects the Egyptian demand. [There were reports from Israel this week that opposing government factions are close to agreement on a compromise formula for handling the dispute with Egypt over Taba and avoiding a Cabinet showdown.]
Bar-Moshe said he expected an Israeli decision on the issue "in the course of a few days."
In another development, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Richard Murphy arrived Friday from Israel for a series of meetings with Egyptian officials on his apparently unsuccessful effort to get Arab-Israeli peace talks going, the Associated Press reported.
The U.S. envoy refused to answer questions on arrival at the Mediterranean port of Alexandria.
[Murphy met Friday in Jerusalem with Prime Minister Shimon Peres and Peres sent a message with Murphy to President Hosni Mubarak pledging efforts to improve Israeli-Egyptian relations.]