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News Analysis: Israel Alleges Egypt Hinders Conclusion of Hebron Accord

It was symbolic of the close Egyptian-Palestinian ties:

The first commercial flight of the new Palestinian airline took off Monday from Port Sa’id, Egypt, to Jidda, Saudi Arabia.

The Palestinians had their own airport at Dahania in the Gaza Strip, but Israel has not yet approved its opening, citing differences over security arrangements.

The Palestinians turned to the Egyptians for help. And the Egyptians were glad to oblige, as they have often done in recent weeks — at the expense of their relations with Israel.

At this delicate stage in the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, the Egyptians are not attempting to appear as honest brokers.

Indeed, as they seem to be pushing Palestinian Authority leader Yasser Arafat to hold out for all he can get in the talks with the Israelis, the Egyptians sometimes look more Palestinian than the Palestinians themselves.

In December, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak walked hand in hand with Israeli Defense Minister Yitzhak Mordechai, creating speculation that a warming of ties between the two countries was in the offing.

But since then, the tenuous relations between Jerusalem and Cairo reached a new ebb.

Last week, Mubarak sent two emissaries to Gaza to make sure that Arafat did not settle for too little in the negotiations with Israel for the turnover of most of Hebron to Palestinian self-rule.

In response, political sources in Jerusalem blamed Mubarak over the weekend for being the main force behind Arafat’s repeated delays in signing the Hebron agreement.

The sources quoted intelligence analysts who said that Egyptian officials were following a dual policy.

On the one hand, they wanted to continue with the peace process, thereby enjoying the benefits of generous U.S. economic aid.

On the other, they sought to belittle Israel, in order to preserve its leadership role in the Arab world.

But Egypt experts such as Yoram Meital of Tel Aviv University’s Moshe Dayan Center feel that this analysis of the Egyptian leadership misses the real point.

Meital says Egypt was pursuing a consistent policy of promoting the peace process.

When Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visited Cairo shortly after his election in May, Mubarak was impressed by what he thought was Netanyahu’s genuine desire to achieve peace, and he gave his warm backing to the new Israeli leader.

But when there were no subsequent advances in the peace process with the Palestinians, Mubarak turned off the warmth and gave the Egyptian media the green light for a series of vicious attacks on Netanyahu, including some that compared the Israeli premier to Adolf Hitler.

When Mordechai met last month with Mubarak, the Egyptian leader once again turned on the warmth.

But, according to Meital, Mubarak had a specific purpose.

The Egyptian leader was trying to sway Mordechai over to his interpretation of the peace process: that once a Hebron agreement was reached, Israel should adhere to its agreements with the Palestinians and proceed with the next stages of its redeployments in the West Bank.

Differences over implementing the three further redeployments of Israeli forces, called for in the 1995 Interim Agreement, have emerged as one of obstacles to concluding the negotiations on Hebron.

Netanyahu reportedly has committed Israel to carrying out the first redeployment about six weeks after the Hebron deal is implemented.

But Arafat is continuing to demand a specific timetable for the additional two redeployments.

When this issue, which is not specifically related to Hebron, became one of the stumbling blocks in the negotiations, Mubarak sent his two emissaries to Arafat to press him to stand firm in the talks.

Mubarak is not seeking to jeopardize the peace process, says Meital, who accompanied Mordechai on last month’s visit to Egypt. Mubarak, he says, is simply taking full advantage of the situation that emerged after the change of government in Israel.

Egypt, like the rest of the Arab world, was taken by surprise by the Israeli- Palestinian initiative of 1993. Arafat had seized the historic opportunity on his own, without the help of his Arab brethren.

And as the peace process continued, Arafat was joined by other Arab countries – – such as Jordan, Morocco, Mauritania, Oman and Qatar — in forging closer ties with the Jewish state.

With Syria isolated, and the United States playing the leading role as the broker of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, Egypt was relegated to play a relatively minor part in a play whose main actors were Israel and the Palestinians.

Because he was not working in coordination with other Arab states “Arafat became almost a tool in the Israeli policy vis-a-vis the Arab world,” wrote Guy Bechor, the Arab affairs analyst of the Israeli daily Ha’aretz.

This was an unbearable situation in the eyes of Mubarak.

Last year’s turnover of power in Israel changed the situation overnight.

The Arab summit that was convened in Cairo after the Israeli elections united the Arab family in its opposition to Netanyahu.

More recently, as the Hebron negotiations dragged on, Arafat increasingly sought the help of Egypt, which once again assumed its traditional leadership role in the Arab world.

Now, Mubarak no longer speaks for the Palestinians alone. He claims to speak on behalf of the entire Arab world.

This explains why Mubarak prodded Arafat not to give in on another point holding up the Hebron agreement: the demand that there be joint Israeli- Palestinian patrols at the Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron, a proposal adamantly rejected by Israel, which has maintained security at the holy site.

“This is a sensitive issue for the Muslims,” Mubarak told Egyptian Television over the weekend. “One cannot tell Chairman Yasser Arafat that he will not have representation in a Hebron mosque. If he agrees to that, he will suffer condemnation and harsh criticism by the entire Arab and Muslim world.”

The Egyptian role has changed dramatically since Netanyahu became prime minister.

“Egypt has made it clear,” wrote Bechor, “that it shall no longer tolerate negotiations between Israel and Arab parties — such as the PLO and Jordan – – without its knowledge or participation.”

Mubarak will likely continue to insist on that role during Vice President Al Gore’s scheduled visit to Egypt next month and when Mubarak visits Washington in March.

Israeli-Egyptian relations have never been very warm.

But the Egyptians can turn on the warmth if and when they see a change in the conduct of the peace process.

Mubarak’s warm attitude toward Mordechai last month may have been genuine, but it was conditional.

Mubarak demands, in return, a similar Israeli gesture toward the Palestinians.

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