One Step Forward, One Step Back: Israelis Ponder Egypt’s Puzzling Role
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One Step Forward, One Step Back: Israelis Ponder Egypt’s Puzzling Role

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Israeli leaders were heartened when, in late December, Egypt’s foreign minister announced that he would come to Jerusalem for talks on promoting Israeli-Palestinian peace.

At the same time, however, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak was moving in Cairo to galvanize international pressure on Israel to dismantle the nuclear weapons it is presumed to possess.

These seemingly contradictory thrusts in Egyptian policy highlight the deep ambivalence that has characterized Egypt’s attitude to Israel since the two countries made peace in 1979.

On the one hand, Egypt has been keen to encourage other Arab countries and the Palestinians to follow its lead in making peace with Israel — partly to prove that it was right in pioneering accommodation with the Jewish state, partly to reinforce its position as a major power broker in the Middle East, and partly to satisfy Washington.

Some believe that Egypt still is undecided about whether it really wants peace with Israel. Others believe Egypt simply sees Israel as a major rival for regional hegemony.

In either case, while seeking a wider, regional rapprochement, Egypt also strives to weaken Israel and keep it isolated.

Egypt therefore makes peace overtures but keeps Israel at arm’s length. It fashions a model of “cold peace” — some might call it a war everywhere but on the battlefield — and implies that other Arab countries should adopt it. It carries out war games in which Israel is the named enemy, presses every possible button to pressure Israel to dismantle its nuclear stockpile and often leads the diplomatic charge against Israel in international forums.

For more than 20 years, this ambivalent policy has not changed. Nor, from Egypt’s perspective, should it, since the policy has paid rich dividends.

First and foremost, it paved the way for Egypt to build close relations with the United States, including a huge annual aid package that Egypt has used both to advance domestic goals and to undertake a massive military reconstruction effort over the past two decades.

It also has put Egypt in a position to help other Arabs, such as the Palestinians or Syrians, forge negotiations with Israel.

Egypt has been trying to play the “honest broker” over the past year, searching for ways to stop Israeli-Palestinian violence.

Since the Palestinian intifada was launched in September 2000, Egypt has worried about violent repercussions at home. Radical Islamic groups in Egypt could harness anti-Israeli feeling to attack the Mubarak regime for not doing more to help the Palestinians, conceivably sparking violence directed at the regime itself.

Last June, Egypt was able to get Palestinian terrorist groups such as Hamas and Islamic Jihad to agree to a temporary truce, or “hudna,” with Israel. But the truce quickly collapsed after a rash of targeted killings of terrorist leaders and a new wave of Palestinian suicide bombings.

Now the Egyptians are trying again, holding meetings in Cairo on a new cease-fire and sending Egypt’s intelligence chief, Omar Suleiman, for talks in the Palestinian territories, so far without concrete results.

Syrian President Bashar Assad also is seeking Egyptian aid in paving the way for a renewal of peace talks with Israel. After Saddam Hussein’s fall in Iraq and Libyan leader Muammar Gadhafi’s agreement to open his weapons programs to international inspection, Assad fears he could be next in line for “special treatment” by an American government that has shown little tolerance for Arab sponsors of terrorism.

Assad announced through the pages of the New York Times that he wants to start a new negotiating process with Israel, and in late December he flew to Egypt to ask for Mubarak’s aid.

Israel has been skeptical of Assad’s intentions — most officials believe Assad merely is trying to duck U.S. pressure — but says it is exploring Assad’s statement. Still, Israel is demanding strong Syrian action against terrorist groups in Damascus and Lebanon before any talks can begin.

While playing the “honest broker,” however, Egypt also has been leading diplomatic moves against Israel in various international forums.

Egypt was active in getting the security fence issue referred to the international court at The Hague and, following Libya’s startling commitment on weapons of mass destruction, Egypt worked closely with Syria to force a Security Council debate on ridding the Middle East of all weapons of mass destruction — a debate that is bound to focus primarily on Israel’s presumed nuclear arsenal.

For years, the campaign against Israel’s nuclear capability has been a cornerstone of Egyptian foreign policy. In 1995, Egypt threatened to scuttle international reaffirmation of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty by persuading Third World countries not to sign unless Israel did.

Five years later, Egypt repeated the same gambit. In both cases, however, strong American pressure forced the Egyptians to back down.

Indeed, there is a huge disparity between Egypt’s self-image and the reality on the ground: The truth is that Egypt no longer seems to have the clout of a great regional player.

For example, when Egypt’s foreign minister, Ahmed Maher, visited the Al Aksa Mosque on Jerusalem’s Temple Mount in late December, Palestinian radicals bombarded him with shoes, a display of contempt. And on that same trip, Egypt heeded Israel’s demand that Maher not meet with Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat, whom Israel seeks to sideline.

Earlier, Palestinian terrorist groups disdainfully rejected Egyptian advice to accept a cease-fire with Israel.

The duality of Egyptian policy leads to suspicion and anxiety on the Israeli side. One of Egypt’s sharpest Israeli critics is Yuval Steinitz, chairman of the Knesset’s Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, who asks why Egypt needs such a huge, modern army when it has no apparent enemies.

Steinitz notes that Egypt has used huge amounts of American money to transform its army into one of the strongest forces in the Middle East, that it has many of the same weapons systems as Israel and that it even has American instructors to teach the Egyptians how to use the weapons.

Of all the Arab armies, Steinitz says, Egypt’s is the one Israel has to take most seriously in the future.

Perhaps the case that best highlights the ambivalence of Egyptian policy is the abortive Camp David summit with the Palestinians in July 2000. Fearing that their regional influence would be diluted, the Egyptians blocked the resumption of multilateral peace talks with Israel on regional cooperation in the run-up to Camp David.

Then, as the Camp David summit was about to collapse, Mubarak turned down a request from President Clinton to do him a personal favor and pressure Arafat to sign an agreement with Israel that would postpone disputes over sovereignty of Jerusalem’s holy sites.

At the time, American and Israeli officials found Egypt’s spoiler role unbearable. Yet when fighting erupted two months after the collapse of Camp David, Egypt played a major role in containing the violence and preventing a full-scale regional war.

Though he pulled Egypt’s ambassador from Israel — a violation of Egypt’s peace treaty with Israel — Mubarak declared early on that Egypt “wouldn’t fight to the last Egyptian” for the Palestinian cause. More than anything else, analysts believe, Mubarak’s levelheaded attitude prevented the spread of violence across the entire region.

Though Egypt continues to fire diplomatic broadsides at Israel and refuses to return its ambassador, trumpets its friendship with the United States while ignoring U.S. calls to democratize, and plays the regional superpower without regional respect, the bottom line is that most feel that Egypt’s pragmatism remains a powerful, pro-Western force for regional stability.

But that stability rests, in large degree, on the person of Mubarak, a 75-year-old whose health has raised concern recently. Mubarak had to interrupt a televised speech last month when he suddenly fell ill.

After 22 years in power, Mubarak has not chosen a successor, and analysts worry that if Mubarak dies suddenly — he came to power after Anwar Sadat was assassinated — Egypt will fall into disarray. That could give Islamists, Mubarak’s most powerful domestic opponents, an opportunity to seize power and upset the regional stability Mubarak has been so keen to maintain.

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