Hosni Mubarak's initiative to hold a four-way, Israeli-Arab summit originally intended to include Washington in the show. The innovation is that Washington's public nonparticipation did not prevent the summit from taking place.
After more than a decade in which Israelis, Palestinians, Egyptians and Jordanians have grown used to an American presence at every table where the terms "negotiations" or "dialogue" might be heard, the parties are arriving in Sharm el-Sheikh without their training wheels - or at least not near the table.
As far as Egypt is concerned, this is its granting of paternity not only to the new Palestinian Authority under Mahmoud Abbas, known as Abu Mazen, but also for the process itself. Thus, Egypt is continuing the political change that it underwent about halfway through the intifada, a change that saw Cairo deciding to take responsibility as a partner and not merely as a host or a producer.
That decision created the strategic dialogue between Egypt and the Palestinian factions, particularly Hamas and Islamic Jihad, which was meant to produce the cease-fire. The same decision later led to a change in the policy toward Israel. That change was expressed in the release of Israeli Druze Azzam Azzam in December, in Egyptian readiness to assume some of the security responsibility ahead of the Israel Defense Forces withdrawal from Gaza, and in the shift in Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's image in the semi-governmental press in Egypt. Finally, it is expressed in the absence of a denial about Mubarak's readiness to visit Israel at some time.
Hosting the summit as a partner could be considered very daring on Egypt's part, requiring detailed preliminary preparations so the summit does not turn out to be a fiasco. To that end, Egypt held lengthy discussions over the past weeks and especially over the past week, with the Hamas and Islamic Jihad leaders, Khaled Meshal and Ramadan Shalah, respectively, in which they apparently agreed to join a conditional cease-fire.
Ten days ago, Egypt was already given an Israeli commitment to a cease-fire under certain conditions, and in its wake, the organizations notified Egypt that their cease-fire will last as long as Israel sticks to its commitments.
Sewing up the mutual security commitments, which was the hardest part of the preparations for the summit, was the job of Egyptian Intelligence Minister Omar Suleiman, who, together with Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit, will be going to Washington after the summit. That was another motivation for Mubarak: taking on the role of mediator between the parties and Washington instead of continuing to be the party that gets reports from the sides.
The new position vis a vis Washington is another attempt by Egypt to try to show that it is possible to solve local conflicts with local mediators and not necessarily with a high American profile.
Thus, Egypt is adopting - at least partially - the idea that King Abdullah of Jordan came up with two years ago, in which Arab guarantees might help advance Israel's approach to a solution to the conflict. It is no accident, therefore, that Abdullah is taking part. But even before that goal is achieved, Egypt has managed to achieve two important objectives: the Israeli withdrawal from Gaza will not be unilateral and Egypt will not end up serving as Israel's "cop" against the Palestinians in Gaza.
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