Fearful of being excluded from the Middle East peace process, Yasser Arafat and his Palestine Liberation Organization are relying increasingly upon Egypt as a last hope to keep them in the running. Mr. Arafat's visit here comes at a crossroads both for his organization and for Egypt.
The United States and Israel appear to be moving toward a new conception of a Middle East peace process -- one that would reportedly rule out the PLO. Jordan's King Hussein, the PLO's partner in seeking a negotiated peace, is reported to be wavering in his support for Arafat's role in the peace process.
``The Egyptians have concluded that Arafat's the best they've got,'' said one Western diplomat. ``They feel it will take years to find someone with the authority that Arafat has.''
``There is a plan to keep the PLO away from the settlement effort,'' said Osama Baz, chief political adviser to Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. ``All the moves of the US indicate that it approves the plan of dropping the PLO from any forthcoming settlement. We consider this dangerous and an error because it is impossible to distance the PLO from settlement efforts.''
During the current talks, Egypt is expected to try to find new ways to bring the PLO back into the peace process. The Egyptians are expected to pressure Arafat for a declaration on a moratorium on violence. President Mubarak met with Arafat Tuesday, and later senior PLO advisors and Egyptian ministers joined the talks, giving them the appearance -- and weight -- of a state visit.
``Jordan is too weak,'' said PLO spokesman Ahmad Abdul Rahman, in an interview. ``We must find a force that can lift the February accord from the mud to the table. That power is Egypt.'' Egypt played a major role in bringing about a Feb. 11 agreement between Arafat and King Hussein to jointly negotiate peace. The accord was designed to convince the US that Jordan and the PLO were ready for peace and to get negotiations started during the term of Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres.
Mr. Rahman said that the Egyptians must pressure the US to legitimize a PLO role by threatening to dump its alliance with the US.
Dr. Baz implied he would push the PLO toward a moratorium on violence as one way of restoring respectability to Arafat. He implied he would work for a mutual moratorium between Israel and the PLO.
The PLO seems ready to make concessions. Spokesman Rahman indicated that Arafat was ready to punish Muhammad Abbas, leader of a breakaway PLO faction, who apparently masterminded the recent Achille Lauro hijacking. And Nabil Shaath, a close Arafat aide, indicated that a moratorium on violence might be possible.
If Egypt could win such a concession, its next task would be a rapprochement between the PLO and Jordan.
``It's our view that Jordan can't do without the PLO and the PLO can't do without Jordan,'' said Assistant Foreign Minister Abdel Halim Badawi. Egypt would also have to bargain with the US to win back a PLO role.
However, there are still hurdles. Relations between the US and Egypt have been strained by the US interception of an Egyptian airliner carrying the Achille Lauro's hijackers. In addition, Egypt was angered when a senior PLO official accused Egypt of never having consulted the PLO on where the hijackers should be sent.
But Egypt, says Baz, still stands by the Hussein-Arafat agreement. ``We are going through a crucial crossroads,'' he said. ``Still we are willing to perform.''