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Wednesday, 30 January, 2002, 23:42 GMT
Israel revives contacts with Egypt
Israeli Defence Minister Binyamin Ben Eliezer (left) with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak
The Israelis said they were given a warm welcome
Barbara Plett

The Israeli plane touched down between the sea and the desert bearing the Israeli Defence Minister, Binyamin Ben Eliezer, on a mission of hope.

He is the most senior Israeli official to visit Egypt since the 11 September terror attacks in the United States.

Egypt holds the key to influencing the region in general and Yasser Arafat in particular to end the violence and contribute to the peace process

Binyamin Ben Eliezer
The political climate since then has given Israel a clear diplomatic advantage over the Palestinians and a virtual green light from Washington to deal as it chooses with Palestinian militants fighting occupation.

Egypt has expressed growing alarm at the escalating violence and given Israel, with whom it has a frigid peace treaty, an even colder shoulder than usual.

Arafat's role

Part of Mr Ben Eliezer's mission at the Sinai resort town of Sharm el-Sheikh was to explain to Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak why Israel is keeping the Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat under virtual house arrest.

Armed Palestinians in the al-Amari refugee camp, near Ramallah
Egypt has expressed alarm over escalating violence in the region

"Israel is committed to the peace process with the Palestinians, but today we have no real partner for negotiations," he said.

"Egypt holds the key to influencing the region in general and Yasser Arafat in particular to end the violence and contribute to the peace process."

The defence minister said later he had the feeling the Egyptian president would co-operate in pressing Mr Arafat to halt attacks against Israel.

However, Mr Mubarak did not confirm that opinion.

He may feel that Mr Arafat is part of the problem - he did not call the Palestinian leader for weeks after the discovery of an arms shipment allegedly destined for Palestinian militants via Egypt's Suez Canal.

But he has also warned that weakening Mr Arafat could lead to disaster, and he has made it clear that he holds Israel's right-wing Prime Minister Ariel Sharon responsible for the Israeli-Palestinian crisis.

But looking into the abyss, he appeared to think it was time for some kind of action. He told journalists he had recently telephoned Mr Arafat.

"I told him, do your best to help calm the situation," he said.

"I think he will be ready to co-operate with me."

Delicate position

The visit reflected the ambiguity of a delicate position. Alarmed at Mr Sharon's policies, and alarmed that the United States is backing them, Egypt is also mindful not to get on the wrong side of the "new world order" and is conscious of its dependence on US military and financial aid.

I gave him a message to Ariel Sharon saying we're working for peace...If there is a will there is a way

Hosni Mubarak
Given the circumstances, the Israelis saw the meeting as an achievement in itself. They also said they were warmly received.

Mr Mubarak did seem to find the defence minister good company, perhaps because he is also the head of the opposition Labour Party.

The two strolled in good humour next to the sea. From a distance they even looked alike - two stocky men in dark suits.

The Egyptian president said he and Mr Ben Eliezer had agreed to continue exchanging views on resolving the conflict.

"I gave him a message to Ariel Sharon saying we're working for peace," he said. "If there is a will there is a way."

When asked why he did not open a new page with the Israeli leader himself he said: "We've opened so many pages it's getting to be a book... I send him special envoys, but I would like to have a good response to encourage me".

See also:

30 Jan 02 | Middle East
Israel offers peace talks to Syria
29 Jan 02 | Middle East
Arab ministers condemn Israel
09 Dec 01 | Middle East
Egypt, Syria condemn Israel
04 Jan 02 | Middle East
PLO official 'abducted' in Egypt
17 Jan 02 | Middle East
Ruling on Egypt rights activist delayed
27 Dec 01 | Country profiles
Country Profile: Egypt
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