Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak today strongly endorsed the need for a major role by the Palestine Liberation Organization in the Middle East peace process and accused the United States of attempting to weaken it.

"The PLO is the sole representative of the Palestinians, whether we like it or not," Mubarak said.

"You in America can't understand, really, what we mean," he said of his motives for backing PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat as crucial for a peace in which terrorism does not continue.

"Trying to solve the problem and at the same time trying to ignore the PLO -- this will never lead to a comprehensive peace," he said.

In an hour-long interview, the Egyptian leader said that U.S. attempts to water down Palestinian representation on a joint Jordanian-Palestinian negotiating team had gone too far and wasted more than six months in a crucial period when "time is slipping away."

"That's why we should do something in the very near future so as to keep the momentum of the peace process going. Otherwise we are going to lose everything," Mubarak warned.

The Egyptian president also praised what he called Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres' "flexibility" on a number of issues and suggested that the only thing now blocking a possible meeting between them is a border dispute over a small piece of land at Taba on the Gulf of Aqaba.

Such a meeting would be the first since Peres took office and, Mubarak said, could be accompanied by the return to Tel Aviv of Egypt's ambassador, removed in 1982 to protest the invasion of Lebanon.

Other issues that have contributed to the "cold peace" between the two countries are now largely resolved, Mubarak said.

"The withdrawal of Israeli troops from Lebanon is nearly finished. Peres has shown very good flexibility" attempting to improve the quality of life in the occupied territories, Mubarak said. "He is doing his best really. The only thing is Taba."

Peres is scheduled to turn over his office to the more conservative Likud bloc next October as part of the deal establishing Israel's current national unity government.

In his first interview with an American news organization since the hijacking of an Egyptair passenger plane to Malta last month and the assault by Egyptian commandos that cost the lives of at least 57 passengers, Mubarak also touched on a wide range of issues related to that disaster and to his complex but close ties with the United States:

He said he has "very strong suspicions" that Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi was behind the Egyptair hijacking and he confirmed that there has been a state of alert and a reinforcement of air bases near the Libyan border. But he ruled out any main-force attack against Libya.

"I'm not going to punish the Libyan people because of such an incident done by a single man, Qaddafi. I'll never do it. I'm a man of peace. I have nothing against the Libyan people," Mubarak said.

He defended his decision to storm the Egyptair jet in Malta, insisting, "We used force when we found no way out."

"I thought initially that there would be a dialogue" with the hijackers, Mubarak said, as there had been in the hijackings of the Trans World Airlines plane and the Achille Lauro cruise ship earlier this year. But the terrorists reportedly asked for nothing except fuel to fly to an unspecified location.

As Mubarak recounted events, the only person the terrorists were willing to talk to was the Libyan ambassador to Malta, but he was immediately recalled to Tripoli instead of negotiating. By then, the Egyptian commandos already had landed at the airport in Valletta, and the hijackers had attempted to kill several passengers.

"If we kept our forces in Valletta Airport and the hijackers kept on killing people one by one, I think we would be accused by the whole world of not having the courage to do anything with the plane," Mubarak said. "We would be described as cowards -- that we couldn't make a decision.

Mubarak said that American indignation at the way he handled the negotiations to end the Achille Lauro hijacking in October played no part in his decision to attack the plane in Malta. He had incurred American wrath in the first case for allegedly being soft on terrorism when he attempted to hand the hijackers to the PLO for trial.

But at one point he said with weary exasperation, "If Egypt didn't use force in Malta and the hijackers were killing the people, you would accuse Egypt. When we use force, still you are accusing Egypt. It's all very strange, really."

Asked if, in hindsight, he would do anything differently, Mubarak answered with a question: "What?"

Asked to present his strongest evidence against Qaddafi, Mubarak made a circumstantial case, stating, "I don't want to say it clearly," and acknowledged that on such key issues as the true identity of the surviving hijacker, "the information is mixed." He disputed the Maltese information that the survivor is a Palestinian and that the leader of the team was an Egyptian. He said the survivor's family lives in Libya.

Mubarak suggested that if Qaddafi was behind the hijacking, his motive might be revenge against Egypt for foiling the Libyan leader's attempts to assassinate exiled opponents here.

Mubarak said that after one such incident last year he had firm intelligence reports that Qaddafi was plotting the hijack of an Egyptian airliner from Athens or Frankfurt.

During the interview in the Oruba Palace here, the Egyptian leader appeared intent on challenging what he said has been an unfair portrayal in the American news media not only of his handling of recent terrorist activities but of his support for Arafat as well.

Mubarak strongly denied that a joint appearance with Arafat here last month to issue a "Cairo Declaration" was an attempt by him to embrace the PLO leader in hopes of recapturing some wider standing for Egypt within the Arab world.

"That's an unfair comment," he said.

In the declaration, Arafat renounced terrorism and pledged not to carry out attacks outside what he loosely defined as "the occupied territories." Subsequent PLO statements have indicated that this still would condone attacks inside Israel's borders.

Mubarak said he also discussed with Arafat acceptance of the two U.N. Security Council resolutions, 242 and 338, that effectively recognize the right of Israel to exist. "But we didn't put any pressure on him to agree on it here," he said.

Mubarak, along with senior Jordanian officials in interviews last week, indicated that Arafat should be prepared to make a public acceptance of these resolutions, linked to the convening of an international forum of some sort to open the Middle East peace process.

"The discussion with Arafat is to find an outlet for the recognition of 242 and 338 and it is to be given to Jordan's King Hussein so as to use it with the Israelis and Americans to come out of the deadlock. And on this basis the international forum will start," Mubarak said.

Mubarak and the Jordanians said the convening of such a forum, something opposed by the United States, was now the best way to break that deadlock.

"Why do we fear the international conference?" he asked rhetorically. "The international conference will never superimpose anything on the factions" involved in the peace process.

The United States and Israel have misgivings that an international forum involving the Soviet Union and Syria would give both a veto over the prospects for peace between Israel and Jordan to match the existing peace between Egypt and Israel.

Mubarak had proposed last spring that a joint delegation of Jordanian and Palestinian officials meet with an American delegation as the first step in the peace process "to give confidence to the Palestinians."

But now, he said, too much time has been lost in squabbling over names and attempts, mostly by the United States, to remove any PLO connection.

"In the United States we lost a long time, . . . just two or three names in more than six months. It's too much. It doesn't make sense, frankly," he said.

U.S. officials have said that the issue of Palestinian representation and the form of an international conference remain the key stumbling blocks in the process.

Mubarak said his relations with the Reagan administration generally are good, "but we would like the United States to make much more of an effort."

"The United States is a main participant," he said. "They could play a pivotal role" in persuading those factions, including Israel, "just to help."

Mubarak said that other sensitive points in relations between Cairo and Washington, including the seizure by U.S. Navy jets in October of an Egyptian plane carrying the Achille Lauro hijackers, have been largely put behind them.

He said the two countries now have "good cooperation" in dealing with terrorism. But he gave conflicting answers about why three U.S. military officers attached to the embassy in Cairo accompanied the Egyptian commandos to Malta.

At first, he said the Americans "asked to go there." But when asked if they were not invited by Egypt, he said, "I think they were asked and they agreed to go there just to be near the situation if anything was needed."