The series of agreements reached at the Sharm el-Shiekh summit and the dominant role Egypt took in obtaining them should raise anew the question of Arab mediation in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
President Hosni Mubarak's personal involvement in building a network of trust between Israel and the Palestinians began during Yasser Arafat's lifetime, but back then it was Israel that rejected every attempt at detente, as long as Arafat continued to be a relevant leader. This is also why Egypt failed to get from Israel an explicit commitment to stop military operations, thereby foiling two Egyptian attempts to obtain a cease-fire.
Once Arafat's regime began to be criticized also in Egypt, there commenced an Egyptian-Israeli "overlapping of interests," which reached its apex toward the end of last year with the release of Azzam Azzam, an Israeli jailed for years on espionage charges, and the signing of the free-trade agreement.
This overlapping of interests was profoundly tied to development in the territories. Egypt, which was persuaded last summer that Sharon is serious about the withdrawal from Gaza, was quick to consider the ramifications of withdrawal for itself, and concluded that it must be a partner to the process to prevent creating an enemy Palestinian state on its border. Unilateral Israeli withdrawal was therefore a dangerous maneuver from Egypt's standpoint, which necessitated prompt involvement.
Arafat's death, and Mahmoud Abbas' election and his declarations regarding the need to stop the armed struggle, gave Egypt an opportunity to expand its involvement beyond what it initially intended. And thus, from technical discussions about the number of Egyptian policemen that will be stationed at the Egypt-Gaza border to mutually changing the wording of the Camp David peace agreement, Egypt progressed to a more ambitious stage: attaining a broad agreement between Israel and the Palestinians.
The series of meetings that Mubarak and Omar Suleiman, Egypt's intelligence chief, held with the new Palestinian leadership, and with the heads of the separatist organizations such as Hamas and Islamic Jihad, with Abbas' electoral success in the background, yielded new agreements. According to these, Hamas and Islamic Jihad agreed ostensibly to sever the link between the cease-fire and prisoner release, but insisted on Israel commiting to stopping military operations.
Egyptian involvement at the highest level was needed here to strong-arm the separatist organizations, as well as to persuade Israel to accept the prerequisite it had rejected for close to two years. Toward this end Egypt enlisted Syria, which worked its influence on the organizations' leaderships. Bashar Assad continued the political line he had taken in previous opportunities, whereby he does not prevent negotiations between the Palestinian factions and the Palestinian Authority for agreements between them.
According to Egyptian sources, the positive Syrian influence on the Palestinian factions was of great help in attaining their agreement to the cease-fire. Now Syria will ask Egypt for a return in the form of its mediating between Syria and the American administration, and in promoting the beginning of negotiations with Israel.
It is worthwhile remembering that these developments are taking place a little more than a month before the Arab League convenes. At the upcoming summit meeting, Egypt will apparently ask for the Saudi peace initiative of March 2002 to be adopted again, and for creating an Arab agreement with Israel, especially in view of the new atmosphere created between Egypt and Israel and and the expected return of the Egyptian and Jordanian ambassadors to Israel.
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