WASHINGTON — While the world remains riveted on Iraq, Egypt has signaled a new - even unprecedented - readiness to play an intensive leading role in ending the Israeli-Palestinian war. In Egyptian eyes, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's intention to withdraw from the Gaza Strip has created an opening, and Egypt is determined to act on it. Having just returned from the Middle East, I'm convinced that the Egyptian decision is sincere and quite firm. But can the Egyptians do everything on their own, and do they fully appreciate what they are getting into?
No doubt their motivation to act is not just a sense of opportunity but also a perception of possible dangers. The last thing Egypt wants is to have Gaza, sitting as it does on Egypt's border, devolve into chaos or become dominated by Hamas. Stability in Egypt, always the preoccupation of President Hosni Mubarak, will not be served by either possibility.
Ironically, Mr. Sharon's decision to leave Gaza has led Egypt to assume the role previously played by the US. It is now Egypt that seeks to coordinate Israel's withdrawal and the parallel assumption of responsibilities by the Palestinian Authority. It is Egypt that seeks to address Israeli security concerns to ensure that the withdrawal will be complete. And it is Egypt that is trying to reorganize, restructure, and train Palestinian security forces, and empower the Palestinian prime minister.
It won't be easy. In Israel, Sharon may have made his decision, but he cannot ignore the concerns of his military, particularly when his own party is resisting the withdrawal. Even before the first killing of Israelis by a Kassam rocket in the Negev city of Sderot June 28, the Israeli military worried about the smuggling of qualitatively more destructive weapons into Gaza once Israel withdraws. If Egypt wants the Israeli withdrawal to be complete, it will have to demonstrate to the Israeli military that it is acting to shut down the smuggling tunnels that run from its side of the border into Gaza. Israeli military leaders I spoke with remain unconvinced.
But the challenge with the Palestinians may be even more daunting. Today the Palestinian Authority in Gaza doesn't function on security matters. There are different security organizations, tied to different factions of Fatah, and with different strongmen. These competing forces must also contend with Hamas and Islamic Jihad. Egypt wants to create coherence by having Yasser Arafat permit consolidation of the security organizations into three services that have a professional chain of command and are separated from Fatah. Egypt wants the leaders of the consolidated security services to come to Egypt to reach understandings on their responsibilities and the way Egypt will monitor their performance and provide them support. Only after reaching such understandings would the Egyptians send about 150 advisers to work with and monitor the new security services in Gaza.
It's a logical plan. While it has the backing of the Palestinian prime minister, Ahmed Qureia, Mr. Arafat has given only grudging support - and even this under pressure from Mr. Mubarak and his intelligence chief, Omar Suleiman. Arafat's yes to Mr. Suleiman almost certainly means "no" at this point, particularly because the chairman will never willingly surrender control over the security forces and is also loath to let anyone else appear to be the liberator of Gaza.
So it will require constant pressure on Arafat from Mubarak, including the threat of going public about Arafat's obstructionism. In private, Mubarak and other Arab leaders have often criticized Arafat - but never publicly, perhaps fearing Arafat's ability to manipulate their publics over a betrayal of the Palestinians. Egypt's stake in what happens in Gaza may change that calculus. It may enable Egypt to broker understandings between Israelis and Palestinians on the timing of steps that Israelis will take as they prepare for withdrawal, steps the Palestinians must take in response, the ways the handover of territory will be coordinated, and the areas where the Israeli Defense Forces and Palestinian security services will work together.
It's hard to believe such coordination can work if there isn't a cease-fire - a real cease-fire. Unquestionably, the Egyptians will try to produce that. But all this is a tall order, and the Egyptians are unlikely to succeed without active US support. Already the Egyptian timetable of two months for Arafat to concede on the consolidation of Palestinian security forces suggests to some Palestinians and Israelis that the Egyptians are reluctant to push too hard when they believe the US is otherwise occupied.
Middle East moments have a way of appearing and disappearing quickly. The time to prepare for the Gaza withdrawal is now. The US had better reinforce the Egyptian effort soon lest it too slip away.
• Dennis Ross was director for policy planning in the State Department under the first President Bush and special Middle East coordinator under President Clinton. He is director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. © 2004 The Washington Post.