A thaw in the frozen Mideast peace talks may be in the works as Ehud Barak puts the finishing touches on his new government, but it apparently hasn’t touched Egypt. That was apparent on Monday when a group of Jewish leaders held a chilly session with President Hosni Mubarak, here for a round of top-level meetings including a Thursday session with President Bill Clinton.
Several participants described the meeting as contentious, combative and frustrating.
The Jewish leaders pressed Mubarak on a number of issues, including their insistence that Egypt play a more active role in supporting the faltering Mideast peace process.
But the Egyptian leader balked, saying instead that it was up to Israel alone to restore a positive atmosphere in the region.
“It was very disappointing,” said a
fuming Abraham Foxman, director of the Anti-Defamation League. “There was no real dialogue. Many of his answers seemed even cynical.”
The Jewish leaders also hit Mubarak for Egypt’s participation in the scheduled UN meeting which will examine claims that Israel’s settlements policy violates the Fourth Geneva Convention.
But Mubarak insisted he couldn’t turn against his Arab brethren on the issue.
“I asked him if that was true even if it was wrong, even if it hurt the peace process,” Foxman said. “He didn’t take the question seriously.”
Foxman also raised the issue of rampant anti-Semitism in the Egyptian press and gave Mubarak a report on the subject. “He responded with the same old line: it’s a free press, and the government can’t interfere. That’s baloney; they do interfere all the time.”
Officials of the American Jewish Committee, which hosted Mubarak for the third time, portrayed the session in somewhat more positive terms.
“He was combative without being belligerent,” said Al Moses, a former AJC leader and the host of the event. “He was forthright, but he has positions that differ from ours. That’s nothing new.”
The important point, he said, was that “he didn’t erect any new impediments” to moving forward with the peace process.
And Moses said the Jewish leaders effectively made the point that the community’s support for Egypt — especially in Congress, where pro-Israel lobbyists are just about the only ones pushing for Egypt’s foreign aid — will depend on how Mubarak responds to the arrival of a new government in Israel determined to move the peace process forward.
According to several reports, Mubarak did seem ready to offer Egypt’s help in efforts to free 13 Jews held by Iran on spying charges — but was restrained by his foreign minister, Amr Moussa.
Clinton administration officials were expected to push Mubarak for signals that Egypt will pursue a warmer peace with the Jewish state.
“Egypt has to be the model of something more than an ice-cold peace,” said Seymour Reich, former president of the American Zionist Movement. “That was the message he heard from us — but he didn’t seem to be rising to the occasion.”
Shahak As Ambassador?
Former army Chief of Staff Amnon Lipkin-Shahak has been offered the job as Israel’s new ambassador to Washington as the government of incoming Prime Minister Ehud Barak takes shape.
If he accepts — there are reports Shahak may hold out for a ministerial job — the appointment could solve a big political problem for Barak: how to satisfy the demands of Shahak’s new Center Party, which wants high positions for its leaders as the price of entering the new government.
But the appointment may also have major implications for efforts to restart the frozen Syrian-Israel peace talks.
Shahak, while army chief of staff, participated in high-level talks with Syrian military leaders on the details of possible peace agreements, including issues such as demilitarized zones along the Golan Heights, early warning systems and peacekeeping forces.
The last time Syria and Israel engaged in serious talks, it was through their ambassadors in Washington. Barak is expected to take a strong personal role in any new negotiations with Syria or the Palestinians, but Shahak — another tough-minded career military man — would play an important role in any talks with the Damascus government, observers here say.
“Shahak’s appointment would signal that the embassy in Washington will be a very active part of the Barak government’s diplomacy,” said an analyst for a major Jewish group here. “He is a strong personality who is unlikely to play the role of errand boy that some ambassadors have played in the past.”
‘Something in the Air’ On Syria
This week the Clinton administration also broadcast some signals about the possible resumption of Syria-Israel peace talks.
In several diplomatic exchanges with Washington since the election of Ehud Barak in late May, Syrian President Hafez Assad has indicated strong interest in resuming talks with Israel, and he has signaled some new flexibility in his demands for how they should be restarted.
On Monday, Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs Martin Indyk said that Assad has made a “strategic choice to seek a comprehensive peace with Israel.”
He pointed to a recent interview in which the Syrian strongman praised Barak, which he described as “very unusual.”
And he referred to “a number of other indicators” received by the administration in recent days.
“We have had our own dialogue with President Assad over the past six months, which lead us to believe that he is keen to engage with the new government in the hopes of achieving a comprehensive peace,” he said.
Sources here say U.S. officials were buoyed by their apparent success over the weekend in getting Assad to rein in the Hezbollah guerrillas who were escalating tensions in southern Lebanon.
“There’s something in the air,” said Jess Hordes, Washington director for the Anti-Defamation League. “The recent flurry of statements would seem cause for cautious optimism. For the first time, you’ve had Assad engaging in public diplomacy. It’s being done in a calculated, intentional way.”