The days leading up to this weekend’s Arab summit in Cairo have been filled with historical irony.
In an interview last weekend with the Israeli daily Yediot Achronot, Egypt’s Foreign Minister Amre Moussa cautioned Israel’s new prime minister not to “say `no’ to territories, `no’ to negotiations over Jerusalem and `no’ to the Golan.”
Moussa’s remarks contrasted sharply with the outcome of the Arab summit in Sudan after the 1967 Six-Day War, when the Arab leaders proclaimed their “three nos” resolution – no negotiation with Israel, no recognition of Israel, no peace with Israel.
Nearly 30 years later, in the wake of Benjamin Netanyahu’s election and the formation of a right-wing coalition, the tables have turned.
Arab leaders who once gathered for summits to proclaim military threats against Israel are now coming altogether, for the first Arab summit in six years, in the name of peace.
The Cairo summit was called out of fear that Israel’s new government would depart from the land-for-peace principles that have been the basis of the peace process during the past several years. Although Arab unity is an elusive concept, the Egyptian’s hosts hope that the summit will produce a unified stance on the peace process and the Netanyahu government.
Egypt and the Palestinians have the most to gain when Cairo brings together some 20 Arab leaders at the summit, slated for Friday to Sunday.
Indeed, no party to the summit is more nervous about the direction Netanyahu’s government will pursue than the Palestinians, who at this point would have the most to lose if the peace process breaks down.
The Palestinians have sent desperate signals to Netanyahu that they want to talk business.
Netanyahu’s foreign affairs adviser, Dore Gold,met with Arafat’s second in command, Mahmoud Abbas, also known as Abu-Mazen, within days after the election.
Faisal Husseini, in charge of Jerusalem in Arafat’s Cabinet, met last week with Ronnie Milo, the Likud mayor of Tel Aviv, to convey Palestinian desires to continue with the peace process.
But a few days later, Arafat radiated pessimism. All his efforts to establish direct contact with Netanyahu have failed.
As a result, Arafat was coming to Cairo with a major question mark hanging over future relations with the new government in Israel.
His immediate concerns surround the redeployment of Israeli forces in Hebron and the resumption of the final status talks that opened in early May and were expected to continue after the Israeli elections.
Under the Israeli-Palestinian accords, the final phase of negotiations will determine the political status of the Palestinian self-rule areas, as well as the status of Jerusalem and Israeli settlements in the West Bank and Gaza.
In response to Netanyahu’s intention to adopt a harder line toward the talks with the Palestinians than was pursued by the government of Shimon Peres, some voices in the Arab world have called for the summit to urge an immediate cessation of any normalization of relations with Israel.
But Arafat wants to keep all options open.
The Palestinians are coming to Cairo with a more moderate approach, suggesting that the summit condition the continued normalization on progress in the peace process.
That the Palestinians were emerging as the standard bearers of moderation in advance of the summit was a direct result of the peace process.
Some Palestinians see the summit as an opportunity to return to the fold of Arab politics.
Ghassan al-Khatib, a political scientist at Bir Zeit University in the West Bank, said this week that the late Yitzhak Rabin’s great achievement was splitting the Arab world through Israel’s accords with the Palestinians.
The direct Israeli-Palestinian negotiations effectively kept the broader Arab world away from the Palestinian question, he said.
The Palestinian press in eastern Jerusalem boasted this week that as a result of the self-rule accords, the Palestinians had detached themselves from the Arab world, but now Netanyahu’s election was carrying them back home to the Arab fold.
Moreover, Egypt, which was the first Arab country to sign a peace treaty with Israel 17 years ago, has found itself virtually on the sidelines of the peace process over the past three years as Israel reached accords with the Palestinians and a peace treaty with Jordan.
Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, whose only visit to Israel was for the funeral of Yitzhak Rabin in November, has sought to reclaim Egypt’s traditional role as leader of the Arab world.
Playing host to Arab leaders at this weekend’s summit, Mubarak is back in the driver’s seat.
With the peace process in apparent danger, at least in the eyes of Arab leaders, the prospects for Arab unity are rising.
But in this atmosphere of harmony, the Palestinians, along with Egypt, are the main winners.
In contrast, King Hussein of Jordan’s fortunes have gone downhill.
The man who was the champion of Jewish-Arab appeasement has lost two of his best friends. Yitzhak Rabin was the victim of political assassination, and Shimon Peres was the political casualty of the Israeli voters. Hussein, the veteran Arab survivor,, has been left out in the Arab political cold.
Hussein would have liked to come to an Arab summit to boast about the dividends of peace with Israel. But, with an ongoing economic crisis in Jordan and deep disenchantment among his people with the peace deal, he can hardly do so now.
Cairo could be Mubarak’s finest hour. He will signal Israel that he can unite the majority of the Arab world behind him on the issue of continuing the dialogue with the Jewish state.
Despite pre-summit rhetoric in some Arab quarters warning of violence if the peace process is stalled, Mubarak has no interest in returning to a belligerent Middle East.
But he will set a price for continued dialogue.
And the price will be pressing the Netanyahu government to enter the next phase of negotiations with the Palestinians in accordance with the accords Israel already has signed.