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Mubarak Doubts Emergency Talks Will End Hebron Conflict

By John Lancaster
The Washington Post
CAIRO, Egypt

Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak has told an Israeli newspaper that he turned down President Clinton's invitation to attend this week's emergency summit on Middle East peace because he does not believe the meeting will achieve anything.

In an interview published in Tuesday's Maariv newspaper, Mubarak said the United States did not make adequate preparations for the summit and that he doubts Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is sincere about reaching a peaceful settlement with the Palestinians.

"I told Clinton that I think there is a need for prior preparations to ensure that there will be some results from the summit," Mubarak was quoted as saying. "Otherwise there will be no use."

Mubarak is hardly alone in his pessimism after Israel's opening last week of a tourist tunnel at an archaeological site near Jerusalem's al-Aqsa Mosque, the third-holiest site in Islam, sparked violent clashes between Palestinians and Israeli troops that killed 58 Palestinians and 15 Israelis.

But his decision to snub Clinton's invitation, and then to air his reasons for doing so, marks a striking departure for one of Washington's closest Middle Eastern allies. His comments reflected widespread skepticism in Cairo and other Arab capitals of Clinton's ability - or willingness - to exert pressure on Israel, especially at the height of a presidential campaign.

Egyptian officials expressed anger over Netanyahu's refusal to close the tunnel or to suggest other concrete steps that might ease tensions with the Palestinians, such as withdrawing Israeli troops from the West Bank city of Hebron.

"Our absence (from the summit) does give an indication that we are not pleased with the situation and obstinate acts of Israel concerning the Palestinians," Mubarak told reporters in Cairo Tuesday.

In his comments here, Mubarak praised Clinton's peacemaking efforts and said he has offered his help in making the summit a success, short of actually showing up. Mubarak said, however, that he could not afford to pay the domestic political price of attending in light of the deep anger that ordinary Egyptians harbor toward Israel after last week's violence.

After the election of Netanyahu's right-wing government in May, Mubarak counseled fellow Arabs to give the Israeli leader time to form a new government and show his true intentions. His first meeting with Netanyahu, in July, produced a handshake and mutual expressions of goodwill.

Now, Mubarak says, his patience is running out. "I won't hide from you that after my meeting with Netanyahu in July, all those around me said to me, I have no trust in Netanyahu,' " Mubarak told the Israeli newspaper. "But he promised me, I will do, I will do, I will sign on a peace agreement,' and I said to my people, Everything is okay. Give him a chance. Maybe he has problems with the new government. He'll move forward.' "

"I gave him one chance, a second, a third. He called me from Paris (during last week's crisis). I told him, Netanyahu, do something. Redeploy in Hebron, so that people can see you are doing something.' He did not respond. He just went on to another subject."

Following the outbreak of violence in the Gaza Strip and West Bank, Netanyahu had tried to persuade Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat to meet him one-on-one. Arafat rejected that invitation, however, because he feared that Netanyahu would not bring any substantive proposals to the negotiating table, diplomats said.

Mubarak, who met with Arafat on Saturday night, said the Palestinian leader was extremely reluctant to accept Clinton's invitation: "He said to me, Without you, I'm not going.' " But Mubarak said he had urged Arafat to attend, telling him, You have nothing to lose. It can't get worse than this."

Mubarak also disclosed that he had received a telephone call from Israeli President Ezer Weizman, who tried to persuade him to attend. "I said to him, What will happen if there is no agenda and no timetable for a redeployment in Hebron?' " Mubarak said. "I said to him, Talk to Netanyahu.' He went to speak to Netanyahu."

But Mubarak said that when Weizman called him back, "his voice was restrained. (He said,) You decide whether to go or not.' I can only tell you I did not see any timetable for implementation on the ground, and Netanyahu does not have a defined agenda."