Egypt Seeks Role as Honest Broker in Madrid

THE MADRID PEACE TALKS

AT a conference aimed at achieving peace between Israel and its Arab enemies, it might be thought strange to find a place at the table reserved for Egypt, which signed a peace treaty with the Jewish state 13 years ago.But Egyptian diplomats insist that they have a natural right to join the negotiations, and say they are looking forward to playing an active role in the talks. "Egypt is the largest Arab country, located in the center of the Arab world," says one member of the Egyptian delegation here. "Its ability to influence events, to steer courses of action, is recognized everywhere." At the same time, he adds, the 1978 Camp David accords between Israel and Egypt are "guiding lines for the negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians this time. We have been down that road ... and we are being asked by all our partners and friends to guide and help them." Cairo also has its own reasons for wanting to ensure, from a close vantage point, that the peace talks go well. Troubled by Islamic fundamentalists at home, who have seized on the Palestinian question as a rallying point, the Egyptian government is anxious for domestic political reasons to see Palestinian demands resolved. Scores of Islamists were arrested in Cairo last week for distributing leaflets denouncing the current peace talks as a sellout to United States policy. The failure of the Camp David accords to solve the Palestinian question has long irked the general Egyptian public, too, and hampered development of normal ties between Egypt and Israel. Few of the normal relations between neighboring countries, aside from diplomatic links, have flowered in the past 13 years. Eager to put their experience in negotiating with the Israelis to use, the Egyptian government has offered experts in international law as advisers to Arab delegations involved in bilateral negotiations with Israel. On a broader scale, the Egyptians feel the time they spent negotiating Camp David, and the years they have been at peace with Israel, have given them an understanding of just which Israeli security fears are genuine, and which stands are merely negotiating positions that can be worn down with argument. One lesson negotiators of the peace treaty learned, according to one diplomat involved in the talks, was "don't allow the Israelis to close the door, keep them talking." That way, he says, untenable Israeli positions become clearly untenable in the light of protracted discussion. Egypt has already played a role, says the delegation member, in "helping peoples' minds evolve" about the nature of the talks now underway, and in explaining to each side what the other means by its statements and negotiating positions, thus helping to avoid potentially serious misunderstandings. When the talks start in earnest, diplomats in Cairo expect to be called in to help clear roadblocks by capitalizing on Egypt's reputation as a moderate power. Cairo will be able to propose moderate Arab positions, the thinking goes, whereas negotiating parties might lose face by stepping back from their more radical stances. While the Egyptians see their role as that of a party that can talk to everybody, overlapping with the US role President Bush has promised of honest broker, not all Arab states are happy. Syrian officials, in private, are angry that Cairo is adopting what they see as an almost neutral stand, far from the solidarity with the Arab cause that is usually expected of an Arab capital. Syria played a leading role in ostracizing Egypt from the Arab world after President Anwar Sadat signed his treaty with Israel, and long held Cairo in disdain for having reached a separate peace. Following Egypt's return to the Arab fold, it was rapprochement between Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and Syrian leader Hafez al-Assad that helped bring Damascus into the peace process. Today, as Egypt prepares to work behind the scenes - seeing the current peace process as a vindication of its 1979 treaty and a reaffirmation of its central role in Arab affairs no-one is challenging us," says the delegation member.

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