Egypt's Role Remains Vital To Middle East Peace Process

THE recent signing of a framework agreement for peace between Israel and the Palestinians is a critical step toward a final agreement on a comprehensive Middle East peace.

Some analysts question whether Yasser Arafat and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) can be trusted to negotiate a peace, or to stand by whatever final agreement might be reached with Israel. Ultimately, only Israel and its people, with the support and active involvement of the United States, can judge whether the reconciliation with Mr. Arafat's PLO is in their best interests.

It is essential, however, that in moving toward peace the US remember that without Egypt's participation, and without the long history of steadfast support for peace from both the Sadat and Mubarak governments, the peace process would not have evolved to this point.

Egypt has led the Arab world in the quest for peace since 1978, when Anwar Sadat traveled to Jerusalem to meet with Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin. That courageous move initiated the process that led to the signing of the Camp David accords in 1979.

Throughout his presidency, Mr. Sadat's successor, Hosni Mubarak, has continued the search for peace. As the sole principal actor speaking with both the PLO and Israel, President Mubarak served a mediating role.

Perhaps Egypt's most important contribution was convincing Israelis that peace with Arabs was possible, and that once reached, it could last.

In the aftermath of the 1981 agreement, many Israelis wondered whether true peace could ever come to the Middle East. I remember well the atmosphere in the mid-1980s during what Egyptians and Israelis called the ``cold peace,'' when the fruits of peace did not appear to be as great as once expected.

But I also remember from my own conversations during this time, as chairman of the Senate Appropriations Foreign Operation Subcommittee, the steady commitment of Egypt's leaders to the Camp David Accords and the understanding of Israeli leaders that the peace itself was never threatened.

Even during Israel's invasion of Lebanon, which angered Egypt, there was no question of Egypt's fundamental commitment to peace and to the agreements Sadat signed in Washington.

Egypt has held firm to the letter of the peace treaty, maintaining unwavering support for expanding the peace process. For the US, the Israeli government, and especially the Israeli people, Egypt's commitment was reassurance that peace was possible. Without Cairo's commitment over the past decade, the historic events of recent weeks would not have occurred.

This is a critical time for Egypt's political and economic development, which could have enormous implications for the politics of the region. Islamic fundamentalists, bitterly opposed to peace, are trying to overthrow Mubarak's government and bring an Iranian-style fundamentalist regime to Egypt. Although they have not weakened the regime, they have aimed a terror campaign at tourists in an effort to undermine Egypt's economic future. They also have launched a series of attacks on high-profile Egyptian leaders. US political, military, and economic support is essential to turning aside the fundamentalist assault.

As I, with millions of people around the world, watched the White House signing ceremony, I was struck by one particularly symbolic moment. Among the leaders coming out of the White House were Norwegian Foreign Minister Johan Jorgen Holst and Egyptian Foreign Minister Amr Moussa.

Much has been said in the press of the key role of the Norwegian government in the rapprochement between Israel and the Palestinians and the crucial US role in supporting the negotiations. What I found most heartening, however, was the inclusion of Egypt's foreign minister - symbolic recognition of the mediating role Egypt has long played between Israeli governments and the PLO, and the great efforts that Egypt has made to maintain and expand the Middle East peace process.

Tough issues must still be resolved, and many painful decisions remain to be made - especially by the people of Israel in determining the size, territory, and security of their nation. The example provided by 12 years of peace with Egypt, Egypt's role in fighting extremism throughout the region, and Egypt's continuing fight for a broader peace will continue to be essential during the negotiations.

This is a time of tremendous change for our world and of continuing shifts in the focus of policymakers as new crises emerge.

It is a time of reform in US foreign-aid programs, as US agencies struggle to meet the new political realities at the same time they grapple with new funding needs, such as the billions just approved for Russia by the US Senate and the $250 million-dollar proposed US contribution for the Palestinians in Gaza and Jericho.

In the midst of these changes, it will be vital to remember Egypt's importance and to recognize the continuing critical role that Egypt will play in promoting US peace objectives. It is a time to reinforce our commitment to Egypt's government and people and to maintain the level and quality of our aid programs to Egypt.

Egypt is vital to Middle East peace and US Middle East policy; we must continue to bolster Egypt in that role.

* Robert W. Kasten Jr. is chairman of the Legislative Studies Institute, which he founded in 1989, and a senior associate at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

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