Strategising for peace
The Palestinian-Israeli conflict, America's Syria bashing and reforming the Arab League topped Cairo's diplomatic agenda this week. Gamal Essam El-Din reports
The bloody exchange of violence between the Palestinians and the Israelis, and America's increasingly aggressive attitude towards Syria, occupied much of Cairo's attention this week. President Hosni Mubarak met Jordanian King Abdullah II on Tuesday to discuss ways to bring the Palestinians and Israelis to the negotiating table. According to Information Minister Safwat El-Sherif, Mubarak and Abdullah were particularly worried about Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's continuing reluctance to abandon policies that appeared to exacerbate the situation, like the security wall being built to separate Israel from the Palestinian areas. Informed sources told Al-Ahram Weekly that the Mubarak-Abdullah meeting was particularly significant because it focussed on the importance of re-activating the US role in pushing the Mideast peace process forward.
At the 63rd Cairo International Book Fair, Mubarak told a group of journalists, writers and intellectuals, that even though 2004 is a presidential election year in America, Egypt will be doing its best to engage the United States in efforts aimed at convincing the Palestinians and Israelis to resume negotiations.
Political observers agree that the Palestinian-Israeli conflict will be a major issue on the agenda of the strategic dialogue to be held between Cairo and Washington during Mubarak's forthcoming visit to the United States.
Ahmed Abu Zeid, chairman of Parliament's Arab Affairs committee, told the Weekly that he believes that the Palestinian-Israeli issue will be one of the dialogue's most controversial issues. Another political source said the worsening conflict could be blamed on the Bush administration's alignment with right-wing pro-Israeli hawks who think exterminating Arafat and giving Sharon a free hand to manipulate the situation in his favour are solutions. "Cairo believes that this kind of thinking creates a fertile ground for anti-American terrorists in the Middle East and the Arab world," an informed source said.
The source, who preferred anonymity, told the Weekly that Cairo will be trying to make Washington understand that its inability to stop the bloodshed in both Iraq and Palestine will have negative ramifications for America itself. Other sources, however, think Washington will be too busy with elections to give the Middle East even a tiny fraction of attention.
Mohamed Abdellah, the former chairman of Parliament's Foreign Affairs Committee, said Egypt's efforts to ease the tension in the region have consistently been stymied by Sharon. Last month's negotiations with Palestinian militant factions "broke down because Sharon said he would not stop his policy of targeted assassinations of Palestinian militants", Abdellah said.
This week, Foreign Minister Ahmed Maher warned that renewed Israeli threats to assassinate Hamas leader Sheikh Ahmed Yassin would plunge the entire region in a new vicious cycle of violence. Maher said Israel's threats to kill Yassin are illegal and illogical. On Saturday, Maher briefed Ireland's Foreign Minister Brian Cowen on Egypt's efforts to achieve peace, as well as the problems standing in the way of implementing US President George Bush's "roadmap" peace plan. President Mubarak also met with Cowen, whose country is currently the European Union (EU) president. Cowen also met Arab League Secretary-General Amr Moussa, who said Palestinian resistance would continue for as long as Israel insisted on occupying Arab land.
The Middle East conflict also figured prominently on the agenda of separate talks that were held between Mubarak and Slovak President Rudelf Schuster and the Egyptian president and Czech Foreign Minister Cyril Cvoboda.
At the book fair on Tuesday, Mubarak told Egyptian thinkers that one of Cairo's basic diplomatic goals was to restart negotiations between Syria and Israel. In that light, America's increasingly aggressive attitude towards Syria has Cairo worried. According to Saudi Arabian Foreign Minister, Prince Saud Al-Faisal, who also met Mubarak this week, it was "strange" that Washington had threatened Syria "because Syria is saying it is willing to negotiate and restart a dialogue".
Abdellah said Egypt would face difficulties if America decided to attack Syria. "While Egyptians were not that concerned about America's war against Saddam Hussein, attacking Syria would be completely different. Abdellah said Syria would also be a sticky item on the American-Egyptian dialogue agenda. Many Egyptian politicians think all America wants from Egypt is for it to toe the US's line on Syria and the Palestinians. They also think an American attack against Syria will reinforce widespread public concern that Iraq is the beginning of a series of attacks aiming to isolate Egypt and Saudi Arabia. Abdellah believes that Cairo will be trying to show the Americans that restarting Syrian-Israeli negotiations will help soothe the region's nerves.
Egypt's diplomatic coordination with Syria and Saudi Arabia has long been a cornerstone of the Arab system.
With Mubarak, Al-Faisal also discussed the means required to upgrade inter-Arab cooperation and streamline the Arab League ahead of an Arab summit due to be held in Tunisia at the end of March. Al-Faisal, who also met with Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad on 19 January, discussed proposals suggested by both Egypt and Saudi Arabia to stimulate the Arab League's performance with both Moussa and Maher.
Mubarak sent Egyptian Intelligence Chief Omar Suleiman and Information Minister Safwat El-Sherif to Riyadh on 17 January to meet Saudi Arabian Crown Prince Abdullah Bin Abdul-Aziz. El-Sherif indicated that the visit aimed to unify Saudi Arabia and Egypt's positions on how the Arab League should be reformed. The Saudi-Egyptian proposals suggest the Arab League play a greater role in five areas: inter-Arab relations; Arab foreign policies; internal reforms; defence cooperation, and economic integration. Other proposals suggest establishing an Arab parliament, an Arab justice court and an Arab economic common market.