"Is he already dead?" an acquaintance asked me late last week. "Not yet," I thought. "The Egyptians are reporting that even his bodyguards are unable to keep up with him during walks." He was not convinced. "Too bad, because he was a serious man," he said, as if he had already died.
The "deceased" is the Egyptian president, who has not ceased to be very much alive and very active. But in Israel and Washington, where some have begun to calculate how much time is left before his demise, they are behaving as if Hosni Mubarak is eternal.
Mubarak remains the leader who wants and can advance political movement. If convinced that the time has come, he could push forward direct negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians, and he is the only one who can bring this process under his auspices. He is also the rumbling engine behind the three-year effort for internal Palestinian reconciliation. Mubarak is the sole Arab leader who does not fear Hezbollah, does not talk with Bashar Assad and is blocking Hamas. Together with Saudi Arabia, he is placing a solid wall against the spread of Iranian influence in the region, and is leading an axis once described as "moderate" which today faces a new axis in which the partners are Syria, Turkey, Iran and Iraq.
Mubarak is not a Zionist activist and his policy is not determined by Israeli interests. But the situation has developed so that Israeli and Egyptian interests have met, and they are getting along quite well.
On the other hand, Syria is already revving its engines, so that it could position itself for a more influential, hegemonic role in the region when Mubarak is gone. Last week, for example, the candidates for the premiership in Iran met in Damascus with the Turkish Foreign Minister, who also met with Hamas leader Khaled Meshal. Syria has suddenly become a broker in domestic affairs in Iraq, and thus its significance in Washington has increased since the U.S. wants to begin withdrawing its forces from Iraq in August. Turkey, which engineered the uranium exchange deal with Iran, is also aiming to become a broker in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Last week, Turkish President Abdullah Gul traveled to Egypt to coordinate their positions.
Mubarak is in no rush to include the Turks, and like Israel he is concerned that Turkey is bolstering Hamas at the expense of the Palestinian Authority. He believes that the Israeli-Palestinian issue needs to remain within the Arab context and not pass over to the Turks or the Iranians. He is concerned that Iranian involvement and Turkish participation may have a detrimental effect on the Arab League's initiative from 2002, which has become an important Arab common denominator that could guarantee an end to the conflict. New partners may not only bolster Syria at Egypt's expense - they are removed from local interests, including those of the Palestinians themselves, and all the more so of Israel.
However, Mubarak's initiatives, and especially his efforts to retain the pro-American axis, are straining under particularly heavy weights. Israel is behaving like a removed observer, as if the issue at hand does not affect it. Instead of rushing to close a deal through Mubarak, so long as it is possible, it is certain that this summer camp will last forever.
True, it is possible to enjoy the sensation that followed the latest Mubarak-Netanyahu meeting - the warm embrace, the joint photo-op that is so important - but this fling has a high price. Because in Israeli eyes the local processes are nonsense lacking strategic value. It prefers to concentrate on apocalyptic prognoses about "war-no war," counts the warheads of Hezbollah and calculates Iran's uranium enrichment. Success in Israel's view is the development of Iron Dome, or some other advanced weapon system. But the more difficult battleground is today in the flotillas, in the UN, in the investigative reports and in the degree of American affection. By the way, Mubarak's strength was proven in these too, or at least in the latest flotilla sponsored by Libya, which agreed to berth in the port of El-Arish. Mubarak shares Israel's love for these flotillas.
In a short while Israel will have to examine what it could have managed to do during Mubarak's era and did not/neglected to do, and in short committed a crime against its people. The opportunity has not passed yet, but all those who are following Mubarak's pulse should, like his bodyguards, keep up with his pace.
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