It takes a crisis to bring Arab leaders together for a summit. Six years ago it was Iraq's invasion of Kuwait. Now it's the prospect of another Likud government in Israel, led by Benjamin Netanyahu.
For Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, Jordan's King Hussein, and Egypt's Hosni Mubarak, Mr. Netanyahu's rise to power threatens the peace scaffolding their governments largely (or wholly, in Mr. Arafat's case) rest upon.
What can the Arab summit, scheduled to run June 21-23, accomplish? At the least, the nations gathered in Cairo can reaffirm that they stand ready to pursue peace with Israel on the basis clearly set down in the Oslo peace process and in earlier United Nations resolutions.
That, of course, means land for peace - the substantial, if not total, withdrawal of Israeli forces from territories captured in the 1967 war. And that is exactly where the incoming Netanyahu government promises to part ways with its Labor predecessor, led by Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres.
Many of the Arabs at the summit will bring along wilting hopes of immediate progress toward normalized relations with Israel and the greater prosperity this could bring. Netanyahu represents a break in the peace momentum. The security policies he has outlined for his administration emphasize retention of the Golan Heights, an assertive Israeli presence in the West Bank, and firm opposition to the establishment of a Palestinian state. The new Israeli leader says he'll continue talking with Syria and the Palestinians. But he will turn a decidedly cooler face toward Yasser Arafat and his Palestinian Authority than did Mr. Peres.
Still, the Arabs and the rest of the world have been here before. Likud's policies are no mystery, and past Likud governments have either broken with form and made real peace, or have been pressured to stay engaged in the search for peace by other interested parties, notably Washington.
Arab leaders will be keeping a weather eye on the White House to see if that role will be taken up again - especially if Netanyahu moves in directions clearly destructive of peace, such as a resurgence of settlement-building in occupied lands.
The presidents, monarchs, and dictators meeting in Cairo are hardly unified in their long-term goals. It's not at all clear, for instance, that Hafez al-Assad of Syria really wants the changed environment genuine peace would bring. He has fed too long on the region's tensions. It's just as clear that his neighbor, King Hussein, has welcomed better relations with Israel and has been cautious about immediately condemning that country's switch back to the right with Netanyahu.
But nearly all the Cairo participants should be able to unite on the aforesaid principles for building peace. Most of the rest of the world will agree with them, particularly if the Arab leaders include in their declaration a firm rejection of extremist terror and violence. This stand could leave a Likud-led Israel feeling rather isolated - unless Israel's new PM has some well-hidden peace cards up his sleeve.