News Analysis: Arab Leaders Join Efforts to Salvage a Peace Deal

Belatedly, indeed perhaps too late, Arab leaders this week joined the United States and other in efforts to salvage an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal.

Jordan’s King Abdullah visited the Palestinian Authority and Israel on Tuesday. Egypt’s President Hosni Mubarak met with the leader of Israel’s Meretz Party, Yossi Sarid, on Monday, and was to receive Israel’s acting foreign minister, Sholomo Ben-Ami, later in the week.

Jordan, and even more so Egypt, were markedly slow to respond earlier in the summer, when President Clinton sought their active involvement, together with that of Saudi Arabia, in his effort at Camp David to Coax Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat toward greater flexibility.

Indeed, Mubarak’s cold-shoulder approach toward the U.S. president led to a period of a tense relations between Washington and Cairo.

After Camp David ended in failure in July, Egyptian leaders declared repeatedly that they would not twist Arafat’s arm at Washington’s behest.

They praised the Palestinian leader’s resilience in withstanding American pressures. In Mubarak’s frequent meetings with Arafat, there was no indication – at least publicly – that Egypt was seeking to impress upon Arafat the need for new flexibility, particularly over Jerusalem, to prevent the final collapse of the peace effort and the inevitable defeat of the Barak government in Israel.

It was all the more significant, therefore, to hear the usually hard-line Egyptian foreign minister, Amre Moussa, tell reporters this week that he and other diplomats were looking at new ideas concerning Jerusalem.

Analysts note the link between these new Arab initiatives and Arafat’s failure to gain international support for an unilateral declaration of Palestinian statehood. During intense globe-trotting in recent weeks, Arafat hard repeatedly from world leaders – including the usually Palestinian-friendly leaders in France and China – to go back and work out a deal with Israel.

The new ideas, say knowledgeable sources in Israel, may now be coming from Jordan’s Abdullah.

While obviously far less influential than Egypt in inter-Arab politics, the Jordanian monarch has long-standing ties to the disputed Holy City. These were given formal recognition in the 1994 peace treaty between Israel and Jordan.

Abdullah, moreover, does not hide his eagerness to see the Israeli-Palestinian conflict finally resolved – and his own country awarded, he hopes, generous compensation from the international community for its part in the absorption of large numbers of Palestinian refugees.

He is anxious, too, to ensure that the security arrangements that Israel puts in place in the Jordan Valley, in the context of a peace settlement with the Palestinians, serve to protect his country, too, from any hostile Palestinian expansionism eastward.

Israeli source say Abdullah is proposing to Arafat and Barak that they agree to set aside part of the Jerusalem problem while agreeing on all the other aspects of the conflict. The remaining areas of disagreement would embrace the Temple Mount and parts of the walled Old City.

The idea to exclude Jerusalem from a final deal has not gone anywhere before.

Barak’s problem, politically, is that he needs to submit to the Israeli public, whether in a plebiscite or in elections, a deal that carries the headline, “End of the Conflict.”

Abdullah, with the Americans, the Europeans, and anyone else involved in this initiative, we need to find wording that can register the end of the conflict and yet leave sovereignty over the holy sites unresolved.

The diplomatic wires are currently full of formulas – from politicians, academics, historians and assorted dreamers -regarding how sovereignty can be vested in the three faiths, in God, in the two neighboring states, in other nebulous bodies, and how it can be shared, layered, parsed and otherwise inventively sidestepped.

If the king of Jordan can line up a significant body of Arab and Muslim opinion behind a solution for Jerusalem that’s acceptable though less-than-perfect, that may prove a crucial contribution at the last minute that can snatch success for Barak and Arafat from the jaws of failure.

“I am confident in the sincerity of President Arafat,” Abdullah told his hosts in Tel Aviv.

Barak made it clear that he sees no evidence upon which to base such confidence.

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