Christopher Calls 'Land-for-Peace' a Guideline

CAIRO -- U.S. Secretary of State Warren Christopher said Wednesday the "land for peace" principle which Arab states see as the bedrock of peace talks with Israel was a general guideline which might have to be adapted.

Christopher, speaking after talks in Cairo with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and Palestinian President Yasser Arafat, advised Arabs negotiating with Israel's new hardline government to apply those principles "in the context of reality."

"The United States has had the policy and continues to have the policy of land for peace," Christopher said. "But generalities do not produce peace agreements."

His comments were unlikely to reassure Arab states who view new Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's call for peace talks "without preconditions" as an attempt to wriggle out of a commitment to give back Arab territory in return for peace.

An Arab summit in Cairo last weekend told Israel that Arab states would reconsider the concessions they have made to Israel if Israel refuses to make territorial compromises.

Egypt's press savaged Christopher on Wednesday for appearing to endorse Netanyahu's line and Foreign Minister Amr Moussa stressed his country saw the "land for peace" framework agreed ahead of the 1991 Madrid peace conference as sacrosanct.

"These principles are not preconditions, they are the sine qua non for the peace process to continue," Moussa told a joint news conference with Christopher and Arafat.

Christopher said he had tried to reassure Mubarak and Arafat that Netanyahu's government was committed to peace deals already signed with Palestinians and other Arabs.

"Prime Minister Netanyahu has made it clear to me that he understands his obligations to honor all those agreements," Christopher said.

But he said Netanyahu described the Madrid framework as a "very useful one for proceeding," rather than the cornerstone of Arab-Israeli talks.

"The United States has not changed or abandoned any of its positions. We continue to maintain our positions that go back to Madrid," Christopher said. "The parties will have to move into negotiations taking into account those general principles but applying them in the context of reality."

Christopher, on his first trip to the Middle East since Netanyahu took office, met Mubarak for one hour before holding separate talks with Arafat. But Mubarak declined to attend the subsequent news conference.

Egyptian officials said Mubarak, celebrating the first anniversary of a narrow escape from assassination in Ethiopia, had a prior engagement. Moussa went out of his way to tell reporters his country appreciated the U.S. role in the Middle East, apparently seeking to smooth over the media storm in Cairo against Christopher.

"A comprehensive peace is what we are after and here the role of the United States is appreciated, needed and stressed," he said. "We all need the role of the United States as an honest broker and a fair mediator in the peace process"

Front-page Egyptian editorials accused Christopher on Wednesday of blindly supporting Netanyahu as he tore away the foundations of five years of Arab-Israeli peace talks.