Leaders of Israel, Egypt, Jordan and the Palestinians will meet in Thursday for the first-ever regional summit conference of parties committed to the peace process.
Spokesmen from all four sides voiced the hope Wednesday that the meeting would serve to push the process forward, lifting it out of its present and dangerous stagnation.
In Washington, Secretary of State Warren Christopher applauded Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak’s “bold initiative” to hold the summit.
“The summit is a powerful statement,” Christopher said in a statement. “The enemies of peace must not be allowed to kill the peace.”
The United States will not be participating in the summit but expects to be part of a follow-up session, a State Department spokesperson said.
But among independent observes in the region, there was much skepticism in advance of the summit, which includes the only Arab parties in the region to have agreed to make peace with Israel.
In the region and abroad, skeptics said the meeting would be a mere “photo opportunity” designed to assist Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, Mubarak, Jordan’s King Hussein and Palestinian Authority leader Yasser Arafat with their various domestic political problems.
They doubted that tangible progress on the Israel-Palestinian track could emerge from this brief though dramatic encounter.
Word of the meeting was first leaked in the Israeli daily Yediot Achronot on Wednesday morning, prior to a short visit to Cairo by Foreign Minister Shimon Peres.
The report was subsequently confirmed by all parties as the day wore on. Peres and his Egyptian counterpart, Amre Moussa, told reporters in the Egyptian capital about the arrangements for the meeting, scheduled to take place in the evening after the Muslim attendees, currently making the Muslim holy fast month of Ramadan, have finished their daily meal.
Israeli sources speculated that Peres was the key figure in initiating the summit.
Peres told reporters that the Egyptians had informed Syria of the summit and had asked Damascus if it wished to attend or have any specific issue raised. But the reply had been negative.
Analyzing the various protagonists’ interests in the summit meeting, seasoned observers here offered the following assessments of what the four leaders have to gain from the summit:
.Yitzhak Rabin finds himself at his lowest level of popularity since becoming prime minister in 1992. This is due mainly to growing public disenchantment with his peace policies, primarily because of repeated terror attacks on Israelis by groups opposed to the peace process.
His sagging standing with the Israeli public has seemed to sap the 72-year-old Rabin of his self-confidence, and has certainly weakened his authority within the Cabinet and within his own Labor Party.
The summit could give him points in the public relations arena. But it is difficult to believe that Rabin and his aides would undertake this diplomatic mission solely for its transient effect as a photo opportunity.
As a result, some are predicting that the summit could provide an umbrella under which Rabin and Arafat might agree on new, concrete steps forward in their stalled negotiations.
Lending some credence to this view, Rabin’s spokesman at the Defense Ministry, Oded Ben-Ami, was quoted Wednesday night saying the meeting would be “more than a photo-up.”
.Arafat’s domestic political position is hardly better than Rabin’s. In fact, the two men are widely seen as inextricably linked – to each other and to their common peace process. Its failure would in all probability spell the political demise of both of them.
Israeli-Palestinian negotiations were suspended following the Jan. 22 suicide bombings near Netanya, which claimed the lives of 21 Israelis. The two sides are scheduled to resume autonomy negotiations next week.
At the same time, Arafat’s recent and surprisingly successful rapprochement with Hussein, culminating in the signing of a series of bilateral accord last week between Jordan and the Palestinian Authority, provides a positive backdrop for their participation in Thursday’s meeting.
.Jordan’s Hussein, for his part, has run into domestic opposition over his peace treaty with Israel. His response has been to urge even faster implementation of certain clauses of the peace treaty signed with Israel last October.
Jordan and Israel reached agreement on the delimitation of their southern border at a modest ceremony this week. But other areas of their incipient normalization are still bogged down in committee work and have required the intervention of the two leaders to resolve disputes.
.Mubarak clearly has the most to gain and the least to lose from this gathering. It portrays him as a central element in regional peacemaking, the party to whom all the protagonists eventually turn to for help in breaking their deadlock.
Mubarak lost points, especially in American opinion, when he held a recent mini-summit with Syrian President Hafez Assad and King Fahd of Saudi Arabia. The summit was interpreted as a means of putting a brake on the Arab world’s normalization of ties with Israel.
Thursday’s encounter, it is believed, will enable him to put right that damaging interpretation and again portray himself as a leading force for regional peace.
At the same time, the summit may be used both by Egypt and Israel as a means of easing recent tensions between them over the Non-Proliferation Treaty, which is up for renewal in May.
The United States has signaled its displeasure with Cairo, which has refused to sign the treaty unless Israel signs.
Israel, which is widely believed to have nuclear weapons, has said it would not sign the agreement as long as Arab states such as Iran and Iraq continue to call for Israel’s destruction and seek their own nuclear capability.
Peres admitted that the issue was mentioned during his talks with Mubarak on Wednesday.
But he also said Israel would not waver from its basic position on the treaty – that a nuclear-free Middle East will be attainable only after all the states of the region have reached peace accords with Israel.