Egyptian urges US to intensify push for Mideast conference
A senior Egyptian official says his country wants the Reagan administration to double its efforts to bring Israelis and Arabs to a peace negotiating table. ``We want an activated American role,'' said Osama Baz, adviser on foreign affairs to President Hosni Mubarak.
Dr. Baz made his comments the day Ambassador Watt Cluverius, assigned full time to pursue Mideast peace diplomacy, left Cairo for Israel in a new round of quiet US exploration of the international conference idea. The notion of convening a conference of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council, together with all parties to the conflict, to tackle the Arab-Israeli dispute has long been resisted by the US and Israel. It was shelved last year after Jordan's King ended his joint political efforts with the Palestine Liberation Organization and after Yitzhak Shamir, a hard-liner, became Israel's premier.
But the idea has been dusted off by a US still experiencing the fallout of the Iran affair and looking for a new approach to the Mideast. US sources in the region and in Washington confirmed that the US is reassessing its opposition to a conference. One source said that if leaders in the region show enough interest in pursuing a conference, it is possible the Mideast ``might make it onto the short list of priorities'' for the rest of Reagan's term.
US interest in an international conference has been stimulated by Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres, who has embraced it, as well as by talks between the administration and Soviet officials that one US official said were ``interesting and positive'' on the Soviet willingness to play a constructive role in the Mideast.
But sources cautioned that many hurdles remain to be cleared before the US commits itself at a high level to supporting actively an international conference. Mr. Shultz still believes that at this stage the US can, at best, only narrow differences among the interested parties on the scope and power that an international conference would be granted by its participants, the source said. The work of veteran diplomats such as Mr. Cluverius has helped to narrow gaps between the Israelis, who want a conference that is little more than a curtian raiser for direct negotiations between Israel and individual Arab states, and the Arabs, who want the conference plenum to play a substantive role.
``The pieces are all in place now. They are just waiting to be energized by decisions from the political leaders in the Middle East,'' said a Washington source. ``This administration could still just walk away from it.''
Asked what steps the US could take, Baz said it ``should make a commitment, at least in principle, to the idea of solving the [Arab-Israeli] dispute through negotiations to be conducted in an international conference.''
Baz conceded that the US lately has shown greater interest in the notion of an international peace conference as the proper venue for solving the Arab-Israeli dispute. He complained, however, that ``American flexibility so far is minimal.''
He said that Jordan, Egypt, and the PLO all agree that an international conference would not substitute for direct talks between Israel and the Arabs. Nor would such a conference impose any solutions on the parties, he insisted.
On another major obstacle to convening a conference, Baz said the Egyptians now are discussing a variety of formulas with the PLO on how to have Palestinian representation at a conference. Israel has said it will not attend any conference with the PLO, which it regards as a terrorist organization. The PLO has said no conference can take place without it.
``The important thing is that you should get the kind of participation that would not embarrass the Israelis, that would not antagonize the Israelis significantly, that will not cause greater problems in Israel, and that will not force the US to follow the Israeli line,'' Baz said. Top PLO officials reassured him this week that ``they are going to be flexible, reasonable, and cooperative on the point of Palestinian representation in an international conference,'' he said. But Baz said it is too soon to tell if US interest will mature into a full initiative. ``Nothing is moving really and seriously yet. But the picture is improving slightly.''