The museum of the Middle East is slowly being filled with the military uniforms of former leaders who have given way to civilian rule. In Israel's immediate vicinity only two Arab leaders remain who were both commanders in their armies and took part in wars: the president of Lebanon, Emile Lahoud, and the president of Egypt, Hosni Mubarak, who was the commander of the Egyptian Air Force. True, King Abdullah of Jordan still wears a medal-bedecked uniform on solemn occasions, but he has never taken part in a war. In Syria, Bashar Assad prefers civilian suits - which don't look as though they have been sewn by a top tailor - and he, too, has never seen a battlefield. In Iraq, there is no longer a president-commander; Yasser Arafat, with his eternal uniform, is also gone; and the leaders of the Gulf states have seen wars but never participated in them.
In fact, there are only two leaders in the region who know what they are talking about when they talk about war: Mubarak and Ariel Sharon. What the two of them will achieve from each other may be beyond the reach of others. Mubarak decided years ago that war is not an option, and in the past three years he has been trying to quell every warlike move in the region, with differing degrees of success. He was unable to prevent the war against Iraq after Saddam Hussein made a mockery of him, but when some Arab leaders, such as the presidents of Yemen and Sudan, proposed that the Arabs go to war against Israel because of its policy toward the Palestinians, Mubarak told them they should wage their war from their territory and not from Egypt. Egypt was the first Arab country (after the Palestinian Authority) in which articles critical of Arafat and the modes of rule of the Palestinian Authority were published, and Egypt has so far been the only Arab country that has been able to convene the Palestinian organizations and make them reach a comprehensive agreement.
Egypt is offering its services in the political process even more than the United States. True, Egypt has not had an ambassador in Israel for the past four years, but Egyptian foreign ministers, heads of intelligence and military commanders continue to visit, and high-level diplomatic ties between the two countries have never ceased. At the same time, Egypt cannot and does not want to play the part that Jordan did during the period of the Madrid peace conference some 14 years ago. It will not be the "representative of Palestine" or a "substitute for Palestine."
However, Egypt can be a mediator. In fact, Cairo has already taken the first crucial step by assuming security responsibility for the border between the Gaza Strip and Egypt in order to remove a substantive obstacle in the process of the Israeli withdrawal from Gaza. Seven hundred and fifty Egyptian soldiers in full gear are not only a precedent for a military mission that an Arab state is undertaking to help Israel, they are also an historic affirmation of the scale of trust that the Camp David Accords succeeded in creating during the past 25 years. The mutual reliance on the accompanying letters, which avert the need to "open" the Camp David agreements, move the two countries another important notch: from relations that were derived from rigid formal papers to agreements that rest on understandings and are appropriate in a region where the last two war leaders live.
Such understandings can continue to maintain a relationship, provided the mutuality is not affected. Egypt now wants Israel to commit to stop initiating attacks in return for a cease-fire by the separatist Palestinian organizations such as Hamas and Islamic Jihad. Egypt is not asking Israel to stop preventing terrorist attacks but to define the preventive process and to define more correctly the term "ticking bomb." If not, Egypt will face an impossible situation in which Egyptian forces guard the Philadelphi road at Rafah even as Israel continues to blow up houses in Gaza.
Obtaining a cease-fire is vital for the success of any disengagement plan, which in any case - in the wake of Egypt's involvement - can no longer be described as unilateral. This is the stage at which the two buddies have to recognize that, at some point soon, one or both of them will no longer be here, so it's best to take advantage of what they are still ready to do for each other.
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