Text size

As Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak's talked Israeli-Palestinian de-escalation with Israeli Defense Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer, looming large was the specter that lack of Arab action on behalf of the Palestinians could spark major destabilization in the Arab world as a whole, with the president himself becoming a potential target for Islamic assassins.

In the past, Mubarak, dean of Middle East mediators, has often proved to be the crucial go-between in tough peace talks, coaxing Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat to put his pen where his negotiating positions were when interim accords had reached the signing stage.

But there was reason to believe that, with the peace process long buried under the rubble of punishing warfare between Israel and the Palestinians, Mubarak's real aim in extending an invitation to Ben-Eliezer lay much closer to Cairo than Qalqilyah.

Regional stability, rooted in containment of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, is the crucial interest of all Arab governments at present, with Egypt at the lead, notes Ha'aretz Arab affairs commentator Danny Rubinstein. Their repeated warnings to Israel against harming Yasser Arafat stem in large part from the fear that chaos in the territories could fan sudden flames of militancy throughout the Arab world.

"Unrest here immediately spells disquiet there, because the Arabs have in general done nothing for the Palestinian cause," Rubinstein says. "Peaceful relations with Israel have continued for the most part, the little normalization that exists goes on as usual, and the Arab public outside of the territories has, in some sense, grown accustomed to this now."

If, however, there is a surge of deadly escalation, as hinted in threats and counter-threats over the potential Palestinian use of Kassam 2 rockets, militants could spark regime-threatening disturbances in a range of Arab capitals and, says Rubinstein: "All Arab governments fear destabilization in this direction because there is simply nothing they can do about it."

Palestinians, already dismayed by the lack of pan-Arab Palestinian financial, diplomatic and military support for their cause, reacted with unbridled fury when the foreign minister of Qatar, asked by Al-Jazeera Television about the extent of Arab backing, told Palestinians that they had no chance of expecting help from the Arabs. "Go and beg the Americans" for aid, because they are the only ones that can do anything for you with Israel, Rubinstein quoted the Qatari minister as saying to the Palestinians.

Even the invitation to Ben-Eliezer raised eyebrows among Palestinians, coming as it did after sharp verbal assaults made recently by Egyptian officialdom on Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, and months of chilly relations over IDF operations in the territories, which prompted Egypt to withdraw its ambassador to Israel for an indefinite period that has now stretched to more than a year.

In fact, seeking to reassure Palestinians that Cairo was still their firm ally, the official in charge of the Egyptian embassy in Tel Aviv Israel took pains to declare that the meeting between Mubarak and Ben-Eliezer did not signal a warming of ties between Egypt and the Jewish state.

The threat of destabilization was very much on the minds of the Israeli delegation as it prepared to leave for Sharm al-Sheikh Wednesday. "President Mubarak is the leader of the Arab world, and I understand that he is very concerned by the deterioration in Israeli-Palestinian violence," said Deputy Defense Minister Dalia Rabin-Pelossof, who accompanied Ben-Eliezer to the Red Sea resort.

"This certainly endangers regional stability, and he must surely roll up his sleeves, hike up his pants and get into this matter."

Mubarak chose Ben-Eliezer – a relative unknown in Egypt – as a partner for dialogue because an invitation to Sharon could have been disastrous, given the hatred of long-time arch-foe Sharon in the crucible of Egyptian public opinion. "Mubarak's primary fears are not for the Palestinians, but for himself," Rubinstein said. "Somehow he must calm the Israeli-Palestinian situation, he must keep the dialogue going, somehow to calm Sharon and act to keep escalation from proceeding."

"The importance of this visit is in its very existence in these days, in which it appears that there is no diplomatic process taking place, in any direction," Rabin-Pelossof said.

Mubarak is also very anxious about Washington's recent hands-off stance toward the violence, Rubinstein says. U.S. officials have in recent weeks given Sharon a tacit green light for military operations, while taking Arafat to task for failing to jail Palestinian militants in areas under his control – a position Palestinians view as a double standard.

But it is another perceived double standard that is possessing Arab states at the moment. "All Arab governments are extremely concerned now that the United States may attack Iraq," Rubinstein adds. "This is driving them crazy. They are so frightened by this, because this would create horrible destabilization. And they see this as a double standard, because if ignoring UN Security Council resolutions is the reason that Iraq is a target, Arabs answer that Israel never goes along with Security Council decisions."

Mubarak will, therefore, do his best to convince Washington to spare Iraq, offering the Americans help in intelligence-gathering in the anti-terrorism effort.

Behind it all, however, lurks the ultimate motivation for Mubarak to keep militants from open revolt. The Egyptian president can little forget that it was the assassination of his predecessor, Anwar Sadat, the first Arab head of state to formally make peace with Israel, which brought him to power.

"Mubarak must handle Islamic extremists with extreme caution, lest he press them too hard and they rebel. After all, they have already tried to assassinate him five times," according to Rubinstein.