Cairo's efforts to advance the Israeli-Palestinian peace process will continue today with a meeting between Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz. This meeting appears to be more than just a "strengthening of ties" with Israel, but rather a prelude to an internal dialogue among the various Palestinian factions that is scheduled to begin Tuesday and run through Saturday.

According to Egyptian sources, a Syrian representative is expected to participate for the first time in this internal Palestinian dialogue, at Mubarak's invitation, in order to provide Syrian cover for the stances adopted by the separatist Palestinian groups.

Mubarak is seeking to bolster the Israeli-Palestinian cease-fire so that it will last throughout 2005, and prepare the ground for talks on the establishment of a Palestinian state in 2006. To achieve this, he needs an Israeli commitment to continue the current arrangements despite the ongoing shooting attacks.

Mubarak is likely to show Mofaz the proposal that Egypt plans to raise at the Arab summit slated to take place in Algiers on March 22. The proposal calls for additional Arab states to renew ties with Israel, as an extension of the Saudi initiative that was presented at the Arab summit in Beirut three years ago.

That initiative, to which Egypt and Jordan were partners, stated that if Israel agrees to withdraw from the territories, it will receive an Arab "safety net" in exchange. Mubarak's initiative is likely to be joined by Tunisia, which has already invited Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to attend a conference in November, and Libya, whose leader, Muammar Gadhafi, announced a few days ago that he intends to cancel the formal state of war that exists between Libya and Israel. All of them are waiting for the answers that Mubarak will receive from Mofaz regarding Israel's willingness to proceed on implementing the road map after it completes the disengagement from Gaza.

Mubarak will also ask Mofaz to hasten the process of transferring control of Palestinian cities to the Palestinian Authority, so that at next week's meeting of the Palestinian factions, the PA leadership can present genuine achievements that have resulted from the cease-fire .

Egypt's efforts are currently being directed toward the next stage: the creation of a Palestinian unity government in which Hamas and Islamic Jihad would also participate. According to Jibril Rajoub, the two Islamic factions have said that not only are they willing to participate in the parliamentary elections scheduled to take place in July, but they are even willing to join the PLO. This Egyptian effort contradicts Israel's demand that the PA "wage war on the terrorist infrastructure," or in other words, neutralize the military capabilities of Hamas and Islamic Jihad. But without the participation of these groups, the cease-fire is likely to collapse.

Mubarak will also discuss with Mofaz the issue of Syria and Lebanon. Following Syria's decision to withdraw its forces to Lebanon's Bekaa Valley, Mubarak is seeking to tone down the international and Israeli pressure on Damascus. That is another reason why Mubarak invited Syria to send a delegate to the internal Palestinian talks next week, so that he can point to Syria's contribution to advancing the peace process and thereby reduce American pressure to get out of Lebanon.

The Palestinian dialogue in Cairo, with Syria's participation, is also aimed at easing the pressure on Damascus to oust the leaders of the Palestinian rejectionist groups from its territory.