Egypt Pushes Syria, Kuwait to Take Bold Steps in Peace Effort

Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak is visiting Kuwait to try to widen the circle of participants in a peace process with Israel and appears to be coordinating his efforts with the Palestinians.

Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak is visiting Kuwait to try to widen the circle of participants in a peace process with Israel and appears to be coordinating his efforts with the Palestinians.

Mubarak is trying to persuade Kuwaiti ruler Prince Jabber Ahmed al Sabah to open negotiations with Israel for diplomatic ties and to pressure Syria to demonstrate more daring political moves that will persuade Israel of Damascus' seriousness about renewing the political process with Israel.

Mubarak was received as "the big brother" in Kuwait, and was invited to dinner at Prince Jabar's home. The reception came a day after the release of Azzam Azzam and after PLO Chairman Mahmoud Abbas announced in Damascus that he plans to visit Kuwait and that "relations between the Palestinian leadership and Kuwait are in order."

The statement comes after a 14-year Kuwaiti boycott of Yasser Arafat and the expulsion of all the Palestinians in Kuwait following Arafat's support for Saddam Hussein after the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in 1990.

Kuwait is the current chairman of the Gulf States Council for Cooperation, which includes Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates and Oman. Those states are due to convene this month to set policy toward the region. Mubarak is asking Kuwait to present an initiative for the Gulf states to establish diplomatic ties with Israel, in exchange for a significant acceleration of the negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians and the start of negotiations between Syria and Israel.

In effect, those are the general lines of an earlier Egyptian and Saudi initiative, which sought to offer Israel a "security belt" in exchange for a peace deal with the Palestinians. This time, Mubarak wants to translate that "security belt" into a political action: diplomatic ties between the Gulf states and Israel.

Kuwait issued a clear signal yesterday of its support for the Egyptian initiative, when Ahmned Aljarallah, editor of the important Al Seyassah newspaper, justified Egypt's peace treaty with Israel and praised it for its long suffering patience when it was derided and boycotted by the Arab states because of the peace treaty.

"Egypt is now reaping the fruits of Camp David," he wrote in an editorial, praising Mubarak for his decision to free Azzam as a step meant to warm the cold peace between Israel and Egypt. The editor has been a consistent critic of Arab state policies, but never has such a supportive article appeared about Mubarak and the the peace process with Israel.

As for Syria, Mubarak hopes to exploit Kuwait's excellent ties with Damascus, mostly based on major Kuwaiti investments in Syria, to persuade Syria to demonstrate more decisively its seriousness about making peace with Israel.

Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Gheit briefed Syrian President Bashar Assad about his recent meeting with Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, passing on the impression that Israel does not think Syria is serious about its intentions. Through Kuwait, Egypt hopes to persuade Syria to take still unclear "significant steps" that would persuade both Jerusalem and Washington to take Assad seriously.

The Egyptian initiative apparently included a report by the official Egyptian Middle East News Agency reporting that there is an emerging agreement - hammered out by Egypt - between Israel and the Palestinians for an overall plan that would lead to an international peace conference for the Middle East.

That MENA report said that Israel and the PA have reached agreement on principles that could form the basis of a permanent agreement, with the U.S., EU, and Russia aware of the understandings. The MENA report says the understandings are supposed to include a cease fire in which the PA is supposed to "put an end to the attacks against Israel and deploy to take control over Gaza and the West Bank."

MENA rarely reports so positively on Israel and the peace process, and as the official Egyptian mouthpiece, its reports are considered semi-official government statements. MENA's report yesterday said Sharon was not interested in putting the understandings on paper until after the PA reforms its security services and their administration.

In a separate report, MENA said "the new spirit in relations opens the door to [the Egyptian ambassador's] return" to Israel. Gheit said yesterday that the ambassador's return is pending a decision by Mubarak, and depends on "Israel's response to the Palestinian hopes regarding the peace process." The Palestinians are expecting a major prisoner release as part of the deal that freed Azzam.

Senior government sources in Jerusalem said the Egyptian reports about a breakthrough in the political process probably were the result of domestic pressures in Egypt after Azzam's release. The sources said there had not been any discussions with Egypt or the U.S. about calling an international peace conference. They emphasized that Israel's guidepost on the issue is in the first article of President Bush's letter to Sharon from April 14, in which the U.S. commits to the road map and promises to prevent any attempt by anyone to impose any other plan.

The road map does, however, mention an international conference - after Palestinian elections, which are now due to take place on January 9 - and that might be the reference in the Egyptian report. Nonetheless, Israel insists that the road map must be followed step by step, with the first step being Palestinian security reforms, including the disarming of the armed groups.

However, one partial confirmation of the MENA report was provided by Sharon himself, when he told Egyptian interlocutors that Israel would not be a direct party to a Palestinian cease fire but would "give quiet in exchange for quiet."