Despite the fact that they occurred almost simultaneously, any connection between the withdrawal of American combat troops from Iraq and Washington's invitation of the leaders of Jordan and Egypt to a summit inaugurating direct Israel-Palestinian talks might appear to be entirely coincidental.
But it is hard to believe the White House is unaware of the strategic implications of its unilateral withdrawal from Iraq for the balance of power between pragmatic regimes, like Egypt and Jordan, and fundamentalist forces led by Iran. And Washington sees thawing the frozen peace process between Israel and the Palestinians - and not only the Palestinians - as the key to bolstering the region's pro-Western axis.
Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and King Abdullah of Jordan were not invited to Washington only to add color to the proceedings. They will be there as the salesmen of the Arab Peace Initiative, which offers Israel normalized relations with all members of the Arab League in return for a withdrawal from all the territory conquered in June 1967 and establishment of an independent Palestinian state.
To avoid upsetting the Jews, in both Israel and the United States, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton did not mention the initiative adopted in Beirut in March 2002 in her statement announcing the summit in Washington. She left that dirty job to the Quartet, which mentioned the Arab Peace Initiative in the statement it issued in parallel with Clinton's.
Were Syrian President Bashar Assad to distance himself a bit from his Iranian friend, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and were Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri able to rid himself of Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah, U.S. President Barack Obama would gladly host them too. And if Saudi King Abdullah were willing to shake hands with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu "without preconditions," he, too, would have been among those invited.
But Obama had to make do with only two players from the Arab League. For the time being, that is all the Americans have with which to win this round.
The bitter experience of the Camp David summit in 2000, whose failure sparked the Al-Aqsa Intifada, suggests that the peace process lives or dies on the question of Jerusalem. Even a charismatic leader like Yasser Arafat did not dare make any concessions over the holy sites in Al-Quds by himself. But only after the talks hit a crisis did then-president Bill Clinton rush his ambassadors to Arab capitals with a request that they grant Arafat permission to adopt the American compromise formula.
Ten years later, the dispute over Jerusalem - this time over a Palestinian demand to freeze Jewish construction in the city's eastern half - is threatening to foil the 2010 Washington summit.
The significance of the blessing Egypt has given the process stems from its primacy in the Arab and Muslim world. The Hashemite Kingdom, which ruled East Jerusalem until June 1967, still contributes to preserving the holy sites - and to vocally protesting any Israeli attempt to alter the status quo. The establishment of a Palestinian state would also grant Jordan an important new role: protecting its border with the new state.
At a time when Democratic candidates in the upcoming Congressional elections are looking for excuses to avoid a photo-op with the president, it is not entirely certain that an invitation to the White House will bolster the standing of an Arab leader. But Egypt's Mubarak and Jordan's Abdullah have no other choice: They will have to make do with the American president's promise that this time, he is serious.
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