Egypt, Jordan Back Peace Efforts

Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak said Sunday that Egypt and Jordan will continue their efforts to restart the Palestinian-Israeli peace talks, despite the call issued by the Arab League Saturday that Arab nations ought to break their political ties with Israel.

"The Egyptian-Jordanian initiative is still on the table, and we should continue [efforts] to reactivate it," Mubarak told reporters in Cairo.

On Saturday, responding to Israel's use of warplanes against the Palestinians, the Arab ministers recommended "stopping all Arab political contacts with the Israeli government as long as the aggression and blockades against the Palestinian people and the Palestinian Authority continue."

But Egypt's Foreign Minister Ahmed Maher issued a statement saying the Arab League's recommendation would not alter Egypt's ties with Israel.

"This has nothing to do with the peace treaty and has nothing to do with embassies, which will continue working normally," Maher said Sunday.

Egypt, bound by a 1979 peace treaty with Israel, has always rejected calls from radical Arabs to severe ties with the Jewish state, insisting that keeping the contacts has helped advance the Mideast peace process. Egypt and Jordan are the only Arab countries to have signed peace agreements with Israel.

Mubarak did not refer Sunday to the Arab League resolution, but he reiterated Egypt's willingness to play a major role in continuing to mediate the peace process.

Mubarak accused the Israeli government of Ariel Sharon of trying to undermine the Egyptian-Jordanian peace initiative, seen as one of the more serious efforts to quell eight months of violence between Israel and the Palestinians.

The Egyptian-Jordanian proposal calls on Israel to freeze construction of Jewish settlements before a truce, then resume negotiations for a peace deal from where they had left off under the previous Israeli government of former Prime Minister Ehud Barak.

The Egyptian president also condemned Israel for using excessive military force, saying he was stunned by Israel's use of warplanes "against people who use only stones or even mortar guns."

He warned that "recent events in the region will lead to a catastrophe that will harm the interests of all foreign powers in the region."

On Saturday, Mubarak talked with President Bush and other world leaders on the telephone and urged them to intervene to stop the violence that has killed 469 people on the Palestinian side and 84 on the Israeli side since Sept. 28.

Anger in the Arab world is at high-pitch as Israeli-Palestinian fighting has escalated to the use of warplane attacks, which Israel used Friday in retaliation for a suicide bombing. Six Israelis and 16 Palestinians were killed in two days of violence.

Saturday's Arab League meeting at its Cairo headquarters was attended by delegates from Bahrain, Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Morocco, Tunisia, Saudi Arabia, Syria and Yemen.

In Jordan on Sunday, Palestine National Council Speaker Salim Zaanoun told reporters that the Arab foreign minister's recommendation constituted "a method of pressure" on the Jewish state to move toward resuming peace negotiations.

"But it is imperative that there should be a collective Arab action, especially from oil-producing nations in the Gulf, to tell the United States, 'Stop your bias toward Israel and stop watching the tragedy of the Palestinian people'," Zaanoun said.

Zaanoun said Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat has no plans to meet with Secretary of State Colin Powell because the Palestinian leader wishes to meet first with Bush. "The meeting should be with President Bush because this is the norm and in order to preserve the dignity of the Palestinian people," he said.