Israel's big neighbor, Egypt, is not an easy peace partner. It is the most populous and powerful Arab country, with 7,000 years of stability behind it, and aspirations to "advise" the rest of the Arabs and Israel how and when to deal with one another. During the heady days of the Oslo process in the mid-1990s, Cairo occasionally torpedoed promising Israeli peace initiatives in Africa and the Arab world because it did not deem Jerusalem sufficiently deserving. President Hosni Mubarak avoids visiting Israel--Israeli leaders considered worthy of the honor are invited to make pilgrimages to him. Indeed, Egyptians in general are discouraged from visiting Israel.
On the other hand, the Egyptians were the first to make peace with Israel, and they have kept the peace. They helped with the disengagement from Gaza. They are interested in expanding advantageous economic ties with Israel in the American-sponsored Qualified Industrial Zones. And they seek to advance Israeli-Palestinian peace, albeit on their own terms.
In short, an Israeli prime minister seeking to promote a new initiative vis-a-vis the Palestinians would be well advised to consult with the Egyptians first. In this sense, Israeli PM Ehud Olmert probably should have met with Mubarak before going to Washington last month, not after. Nevertheless, and despite the death of two Egyptian soldiers in a clash with the IDF in an unfortunate incident along the border a few days earlier, Olmert was warmly welcomed at a brief summit in Sharm al-Sheikh on June 4.
Olmert seemingly said all the right things and more. His public praise for Mubarak at a press conference was almost embarrassingly effusive. At least for public consumption, Olmert bowed to Mubarak's will and agreed to concentrate on negotiating with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas for the next few months, postponing even talk of another Israeli unilateral disengagement for a later day.
The script was suspiciously similar to Olmert's Washington visit a couple of weeks ago, where the Israeli prime minister heaped mountains of public praise on President George W. Bush. Indeed, the only difference between the public aspects of the Olmert summit with Mubarak and the Olmert summit with Bush was that Bush at least called Olmert's "realignment" plan "bold ideas"; Mubarak referred to it as "a different solution".
Olmert has hopefully drawn some lessons from these two summits. Even if we assume that Bush and Mubarak, in private, are completely supportive of realignment, Olmert's plan for unilateral Israeli withdrawal on the West Bank has nevertheless not been marketed well, and this has dictated quick (but elegant) retreats in his contacts with world and regional leaders. Since those contacts are going to continue in the coming weeks, a few adjustments in the presentation of the plan to keep it in tune with realities on the ground and the limits of feasibility appear to be in order. Otherwise, assuming (as Olmert does, justifiably) that the projected negotiations with Abbas fail, Olmert will be hard put to gain overt international and regional backing for realignment when he really needs it.
First and most important, the realignment is not a "solution". It falls within the realm of conflict management, not conflict resolution. It is a fall-back step to be invoked in order to protect Israel's demographic and physical security interests, maintain momentum and keep the option of a two-state solution alive at a time when negotiations are either impossible or pointless. Israel is not dictating final status lines or creating a political fait accompli.
Accordingly, the fence line that Israel withdraws to is not a border, but a temporary line of defense. If it embraces settlement blocs across the green line, they are still up for negotiation if and when a viable, moderate and authoritative Palestinian leader emerges. So is the Jordan Valley, which Israel will also hold for temporary security purposes. Speaking of security, Olmert must have the courage and political wisdom to reroute the fence/wall in Jerusalem so as to protect Jewish neighborhoods from Palestinian suicide bombers, not separate Palestinians from one another.
If Olmert presents his realignment plan to foreign leaders in this way, then and only then will the Egyptian reaction to it be confined to the prescient remark of Foreign Minister Ahmed Abul Gheit a few days ago--one that Mubarak did not repeat: "Egypt can hardly object to Israel dismantling settlements built on Arab territory".- Published 5/6/2006 © bitterlemons.org
The meeting between Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak on June 4 yet again cast a spotlight on the role of Egypt in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.
Egypt's role has always been significant because of its special relations with Israel as the first Arab country to sign a peace treaty with the Jewish state, as well as Cairo's special relations with and influence on the Palestinian leadership.
In addition, Egypt's geographic location on the southern borders of Israel and the Gaza Strip, as well as its historic role in Gaza, give it unique interests.
The recent unilateral Israeli withdrawal from Gaza, furthermore, and the consequent drastic Israeli measures of strictly cutting off the Gaza Strip from the West Bank and Israel have left Egypt as the only access for Gazans to the outside world.
Recent intelligence reports also suggest a possible link between militant organizations in Gaza and terrorist activity in the Sinai desert. All these factors are increasing Egyptian involvement in Gaza. That in turn is alerting Egypt to the strategic dangers of unilateral Israeli policies.
As a result, Egypt seems increasingly keen to deal with both the internal mess on the Palestinian side and the strategic dangers emanating from the Israeli unilateral strategy. Both are seen as hugely damaging to Egyptian interests as they impact negatively on the future of Palestinians and the possibility of peace between Israel and Palestine.
Egyptian influence on both Palestinians and Israeli has, however, been facing some setbacks recently.
On the Palestinian side, the new Hamas government is less sensitive to the Egyptian role compared to the traditional PLO leadership.
Israel, meanwhile, after replacing political negotiations with unilateral steps, is much less willing to cooperate and much less receptive to any input from Cairo, input that for a while was second only to Washington's in terms of its weight.
This last summit comes in the context of growing international pressure on the new Israeli government to resume political relations, cooperation and hopefully negotiations with the Palestinian side.
But it also comes in the context of growing internal tension in Gaza, where Egypt has an "advisory" military and political presence, a presence that on many important occasions has been instrumental in defusing tensions and solving problems.
The chances of this latest summit being successful in enhancing any future Egyptian role largely depend on whether Israel wants to give Egypt such weight. If Israel insists on proceeding with its unilateral policies and continues to ignore the Palestinian leadership, there is little room for Egypt to exercise influence.
In addition, if Israel continues the closure and division policies on Palestinian areas, it will increase the burden on Egypt while making it very difficult for Cairo to positively influence the internal Palestinian situation. In the final analysis, the internal Palestinian situation is a direct result of the Israeli decision to close any political prospect for ending the occupation peacefully, as well as policies that have increased Palestinian humanitarian suffering and consequently the tendencies to hatred and violent action.- Published 5/6/2006 © bitterlemons.org
Ghassan Khatib is coeditor of the bitterlemons family of internet publications. He is the former Palestinian Authority minister of planning, and has been a political analyst and media contact for many years.
AN ISRAELI VIEW|
by Efraim Inbar
At the end of the Sharm al-Sheikh summit, Israel's Prime Minister Ehud Olmert went out of his way to show deference to Egypt's President Hosni Mubarak. He probably overdid it. Nevertheless, Egypt, the largest and most important Arab state, is a regional power that deserves Israel's attention and courtesy. Moreover, the 1979 peace treaty with Egypt constituted a turning point in the protracted Arab-Israel conflict. Without Egypt, it would be difficult to form an Arab military coalition strong enough to challenge Israel's conventional superiority. Preserving the "cold peace" with Egypt is an Israeli strategic interest.
Yet Egypt does not do Israel any favors. Its foreign policy is motivated by self-interest. President Anwar Sadat made peace with Israel because he realized that the decision--a wise one--to realign his country with the United States and subsequently become the recipient of generous American aid required a change in policy toward the Jewish state. Egypt has since benefited from billions of US dollars, as well as from the Israeli lobby occasionally hushing the growing criticism of Egyptian authoritarianism.
One of the reasons for the Mubarak-Olmert summit was probably the Egyptian dictator's desire to score points in Washington, where there is mounting criticism of Egyptian violations of human rights, by being nice to Israel. But it is certainly more than that. Egypt currently shares many of Israel's regional preferences. Both countries do not want to see an early withdrawal of American forces from Iraq, which would leave that country in chaos and embolden the hands of the radicals. Similarly, both welcomed a curtailed Syrian role in Lebanon as a result of international pressure. Jerusalem and Cairo also hope that Washington will eventually prevent Tehran from becoming a nuclear power, be it by diplomatic or other means. Egypt is scared of the increasing power of the Shi'ites in the Middle East and sees Israel as a potential ally to counter this trend.
Even on the Palestinian issue there is a partial convergence of interests. The unilateral Israeli withdrawal from Gaza and Hamas' electoral victory created the conditions for further radicalization of Palestinian politics and the transformation of Gaza into a Hamastan. This is a dangerous development for both Israel and Egypt. Cairo, in particular, is threatened by the potential repercussions of an Islamic regime in Gaza, which would encourage Islamic opposition at home and provide a base for terrorism. Recent terrorist attacks in Sinai clearly indicate that Egypt's control over the peninsula is fragile. While Cairo prefers not to be drawn into Gaza, its presence there has acquired a higher profile. It was reported that Egypt is even ready to send troops to restore some calm to the conflict-torn strip.
Israel has come to see such an Egyptian involvement as suiting Israeli interests by gradually replacing the unworkable two-state solution with a different arrangement, temporary as it may be. Egypt, however, is loath to reoccupy Gaza and relieve Israel of the Gazan thorn in its side. It sees Israel as too strong a regional rival and does not mind allowing the continuation of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, as long as the flames do not get out of hand. Unfortunately for Cairo, keeping the flames under control requires some involvement in Gaza.
Indeed, the Egyptians face conflicting considerations on the Israeli-Palestinian front. The two-state paradigm is a good tool for continuing the conflict, denying Israel legitimacy and peace. Cairo has often encouraged Palestinian intransigence and turned a blind eye to the smuggling of arms from Egyptian territory to terrorists in Palestine. Yet it fears regional escalation. Similarly, Cairo wants a weak Palestinian Authority that can be manipulated, but not one so weak as to be taken over by the Islamists. Yet Egypt, in its attempt to play the historic role of patron, was partly responsible for elevating the status of Hamas in Palestinian politics, by extending an invitation to the organization to attend the hudna talks in Cairo and putting it on the same footing with the PA government.
Olmert is unlikely to get much support from Mubarak for the intended unilateral withdrawal from the West Bank. The Egyptians are again faced with a dilemma. They do not welcome a development that may alleviate Israel's situation in the international arena. Moreover, the Israeli move would benefit Hamas. On the other hand, they cannot oppose an American-coordinated unilateral withdrawal from "Arab lands" and the removal of Israeli settlements in Judea and Samaria. Finally, Egypt understands that the Israeli step will not bring an end to the simmering conflict that serves Egypt's interest in weakening Israel.
Olmert hopefully understands the Egyptian calculations and will calibrate his expectations accordingly for a positive Egyptian role as matters evolve. He should also insist that the next summit meeting take place in Israel, refusing to go along with Mubarak's aversion to visiting the Jewish state.- Published 5/6/2006 © bitterlemons.org
Efraim Inbar is professor of political science at Bar-Ilan University and director of the Begin-Sadat (BESA) Center for Strategic Studies.
A PALESTINIAN VIEW
An important, historic role
an interview with Ghazi Hamed
bitterlemons: Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak met Sunday. How do such meetings affect the Palestinian situation?
Hamed: Egypt assumes an important role in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and even in Palestinian-Palestinian disputes, partly because Egypt feels that all of Palestine is very important for its own political and security concerns.
There is constant contact between Egypt and the Palestinian side and between Egypt and the Israeli side. Cairo tries from time to time not only to mediate between Palestinians and Israelis, but also between Palestinians and Palestinians
During the withdrawal from Gaza, for example, they coordinated with both sides at the same time, and among Palestinians. So it cannot be denied that Cairo plays an important role.
bitterlemons: But in order to be effective, Egypt would need to have something to offer. Does Egypt have anything to offer?
Hamed: Sometimes all they can do is just try to bring people closer or make them talk. The situation is not easy for Egypt to impose a solution or exert pressure on this side or that. It is very complicated. But Egypt tries to work and convince both sides.
Until now, as you can see, Cairo's impact has not been great. At the moment, Israel is not interested either in peace talks or compromise.
bitterlemons: Why does Egypt want to play this active role? Why so different from Jordan?
Hamed: Egypt is considered the biggest Arab country. Cairo has good relations with Israel, the Palestinians, the Americans and the Europeans. If there is a crisis, Egypt is in a good position to mediate. Also, Egypt has its own interests, compared to the Jordanians. Jordan has much less influence in the Palestinian areas. Egypt, historically, since 1948, has kept its hand in the Palestinian question, sometimes through force, sometimes with a peace process.
bitterlemons: How important is it for Palestinians that Egypt plays the role it does?
Hamed: We welcome their role. The Egyptians, both the government and the people, support the Palestinians and their national demands. There is a very open relationship. The only passage to the outside world from Gaza is through Egypt. Egypt has always supported Palestinian demands and the Palestinian struggle.
There is an emotional and historic bond between Palestinians and Egypt. We feel that Egypt is close to us and close to our conflict and can help us. We are suffering from the Israeli aggression against us, and we need Egypt to support us and to back the Palestinian struggle.
bitterlemons: Egypt has a fractious relationship with the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood. How does this affect relations with Hamas?
The Muslim Brotherhood is found in Egypt, Syria and Jordan, and, yes, Hamas is also part of the Muslim Brotherhood. But we have a very clear policy of not interfering in the internal situation of any Arab country.
The Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, Syria and Jordan will solve their own problems in their own countries. It is not easy for Hamas to talk about the Muslim Brotherhood in those countries, and it is not out job. That is the job of the local Brotherhood and leaderships in each country.- Published 5/6/2006 © bitterlemons.org
Ghazi Hamed is the Palestinian government spokesman.
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