Mubarak Tries to Take the Reins

This week, U.S. President Barack Obama will find out how feasible his diplomatic plan is for the Middle East. After hearing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's proposals and comparing them to his notes following the visit by King Abdullah of Jordan, he was supposed to meet with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak (who canceled his visit due to his grandson's death) and then with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.

Mubarak, Abbas and King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia are well coordinated; they are supposed to put forth the Arab initiative and its principle of "two states for two peoples." Mubarak had intended to give the Americans a timetable for implementing their plan.

"If we don't see a public and determined American approach to promoting the Arab initiative, and if we see that the Obama administration is prepared to compromise on the two-state principle, we will understand that Obama is no different from (former U.S. president George W.) Bush and we will draw our conclusions from this," an Egyptian Foreign Ministry official told Haaretz. "We hope the new American administration understands the necessity of changing its doctrine and that Israel can no longer dictate policy," he added. "We do not foresee Mubarak will leave the White House empty-handed."

Mubarak has not visited Washington since 2004, to protest Bush's policy toward the Middle East, particularly Egypt, which he tried to educate on American democracy. Mubarak believes he is granting Arab legitimacy to Obama's administration, and that his weight can promote Obama's policy in the Middle East.

However, Egypt has a list of its own priorities. In order to move the diplomatic process forward, the Egyptians believe, Hamas and Fatah must work together, Syria must be brought closer and Iran's regional influence must be neutralized.

Judging by the remarks of Arab League secretary general Amr Moussa, it isn't Iran's bomb that is worrying the Arab states and Egypt in particular, but rather its influence on Lebanon, Iraq and Hamas. "Iran isn't the enemy; Israel is," said Moussa. No Arab voice has contradicted this assertion yet.

The road map Mubarak was expected to propose to Obama begins with an American declaration of support for the Arab initiative and a two-state solution. Public support for Mahmoud Abbas will come a few days later, but without closing the door to Hamas, which Mubarak hopes will be invited to join a Palestinian government recognized by the United States. Egypt, incidentally, is spreading reports that the internal Palestinian dialogue should end by July 7 in a signed agreement, as part of a pressure campaign on the two factions.

Mubarak, even though he is not on speaking terms with Syrian President Bashar Assad, supports negotiations between Israel and Syria, because an agreement between the two countries could shrink Iran's influence. This would also settle a historical account with Syria, which attacked Egypt for the Camp David agreement.

The fact that Obama did not mention Syria by name in his public dialogue with Netanyahu only reinforces Mubarak's status. However, the Egyptians prefer that the negotiations take place in stages, so that the Palestinians, its wards, can mark achievements before Syria does.

Mubarak's main problem is not only how to put together a serious peace process that ensures results, but how to keep Egypt at the center of this diplomatic process. This is why Mubarak is placing such great weight on Palestinian reconciliation and establishing a unity government.

Though Abbas has formed a government headed by Salam Fayyad, he has said that if the factions reach an agreement, the government will be changed accordingly in preparation for the next election. Obama has already stated that peace between Israel and the Arabs is the most effective way to block Iran's aspirations.

One could question how directly connected these two issues are. It is doubtful that Iran will cease to enrich uranium only because the Israelis and the Palestinians have come to an agreement. There has already been a united Arab front that includes a direct verbal attack on Iran and Hezbollah, and it does not appear that Tehran is stepping on the brakes as a result.

Iran's policy depends mainly on its treatment by Washington, and not on agreements whereby Washington serves as a go-between. Iran has an important gift for Washington, regarding both Afghanistan and Pakistan, and Iraq. Washington's arm-wrestling with Iran may leave the U.S. without a potential ally on those two fronts and without a lever to persuade Iran to stop its nuclear development. The dialogue Obama is proposing to Tehran stems from a new strategy whereby it is better to involve Iran in diplomacy than to build a front with uncertain results against it. Perhaps the United States has no desire to follow through to the end, via a military attack.

The next significant move is expected to take place in Cairo on June 4, when Obama gives a reconciliation speech directed at the Muslim and Arab world. The meetings with the Arab leaders will have ended by then, and the vision might well become strategy and action. The rest depends on the pace, American pressure and the election outcomes in Iran and in Lebanon.

July is going to be a hot month in this region.