On Thursday night he was utterly euphoric. "I was right, I was right all along. There can be no other way than to stick to dialogue with the Israelis. Now the people who condemned me can eat their hats."
The speaker, an Egyptian intellectual who even now - "after the new peace with Egypt was established," as he puts it - still prefers not to be identified by name, was one of the leading peace activists in Egypt during the past decade, and he paid a steep price. He feels "a new era has begun: Peace based on no illusions."
An hour later, the Arab satellite television newscasts - from Saudi Arabia and Lebanon, as well as Al Jazeera and Al-Arabiya - opened with reports about Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's victory in the Likud convention vote, enabling him to launch coalition talks with the Labor Party. In their scale, the reports and the commentaries about the event resembled reports about Arab summit meetings. Suddenly, a Sharon victory in a party convention is the most crucial Arab issue. But it's not only the television reports that are setting the "new tone," which is itself a new expression.
Even though the Kuwaiti authorities denied that Kuwait intends to resume its diplomatic relations with Israel, it was impossible to ignore the editorial written by Ahmad al-Jarallah, the editor of the Kuwaiti daily Al-Siyasa, on the day Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak visited Kuwait. Jarallah went out of his way to heap praise on Egypt for signing a peace treaty with Israel. A Jordanian journalist described his feelings to Haaretz in these words: "It seems as if we are all now standing in the Arab waiting room, watching for the door to open, even by so much as a crack, so that we will burst in toward Israel."
The waiting is of a dual character: both for steps on the part of Israel and for decisions by the Arab governments. Egypt, for example, plans to send back its ambassador to Israel after the Palestinian Authority elections because it wants to post representatives at some level in the PA as well. Jordan is waiting for the conclusion of the discussions on the release of the four Jordanian security prisoners whom Israel is holding in order to return its ambassador, too. Israel, which might be ready to release the prisoners as part of a comprehensive deal with Hezbollah, is in the meantime holding fast to its decision not to return them to Jordan directly. Maybe when that issue is settled, King Abdullah will visit Israel at long last. Kuwait, according to a senior Egyptian source, will be ready to establish relations with Israel within the framework of a sweeping package deal involving all the Gulf states. Libya may precede them all: Its leader, Muammar Qadhafi, has intimated as much and has now invited Israeli representatives to visit.
Why are the Arabs still in the "waiting room?" Their behavior is still subject to three developments: the elections in the Palestinian Authority, the Israeli disengagement from the Gaza Strip and the renewal of Israeli-Syrian negotiations. Although in theory these might seem to be intolerably difficult conditions, in practice only opening moves are required. Elections and disengagement are not withdrawal from all the territories, they do not mean the dismantling of all the settlements, and they do not encompass either the right of return or the Jerusalem question. Similarly, a renewal of talks with Syria is not yet a withdrawal from the Golan Heights. Moreover, the great wonder has already occurred, even before half a tile has been removed from the roof of a house in the Gush Katif settlement bloc or before even one settlement outpost (remember that issue?) has folded: Ariel Sharon received the legitimization he needs from the president of Egypt, and there is no one, at least not in the coming week, to challenge that in the Arab states, especially when even Syrian President Bashar Assad is ready to talk to Sharon and Yasser Arafat is no longer in the picture.
Sharon grabbed the reins of the political process with the object of steering it not when he declared the disengagement plan but when he proved that he is ready to take great risks to implement it. Egypt understood very quickly that this is the only wagon on which any sort of process can be moved ahead; as such, it opened the periodic window of opportunity of the peace process, while an array of hitchhikers wait by the roadside. Now the Arab states, too, are waiting to see whether the democratic process in Israel - in the form of the activists of the Likud Central Committee - doesn't tip over at the first sharp turn.
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