Cairo's Qualified Success

THE first success achieved by the four-way Middle Eastern summit in Cairo last week was that it took place at all. Israel arranged the meeting, with King Hussein of Jordan and Palestine Liberation Organization chairman Yasser Arafat, as well as Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, without an overt American presence.

The second success was that although no breakthroughs were achieved, the session did not dissolve in acrimony, either.

The third success is that the four parties -- one can't quite speak of four countries, since Mr. Arafat heads only an ''authority'' -- announced a series of subsequent meetings on outstanding issues: one in Cairo today on elections; one on Palestinian-Israeli bilateral issues; one among the four respective foreign ministers in Washington Feb. 12; and then a meeting in Amman, Jordan, to discuss expanding West Bank settlements.

On top of this, the four announced their intention to hold additional meetings as needs arise.

The summit concluded with an iftar, the evening meal Muslims eat after fasting all day during Ramadan, and the symbolism of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin partaking in that was potent. It all added up to more than just a photo opportunity. It was the first time Israel was part of a regional summit.

All this said, it must be noted that Israel, primary convener of the summit, is in a tough spot right now: It has its hands full with the challenges of coming to terms with Syria, which isn't budging, and of Hamas terrorism. Relations with Egypt have been strained over Israel's refusal to sign the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, which is up for renewal this spring. Mr. Rabin's political opponents criticized the Cairo summit as a mere public relations ploy.

The absence of strong American leadership in the region is felt. The Cairo conference can be seen as a sign of regional powers taking the initiative, but a darker view can be taken, too: that the regional powers are scrambling to improvise in a power vacuum, now that the momentum from the October 1991 peace conference in Madrid is largely gone.

Is the Clinton administration, distracted as it has been with Bosnia and Haiti, to say nothing of the new Congress, willing to take up a serious role in the Middle East? It's not clear that it is. But both the positive developments of the Cairo summit, and the great needs in the region, deserve the administration's best energies.

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