President Clinton may have placed a news blackout on the critical Israeli-Palestinian peace summit, but there is no secret about how the peacemaking dynamic is changing across the Middle East - and favoring a bigger role for Egypt in the peace process.
On the eve of the summit, both Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat journeyed to Cairo to consult with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. Mr. Clinton has also put in calls to Cairo as peace efforts sputtered on.
With the death last year of Jordan's King Hussein - whose close ties to Israel and the US won him the reputation of "peacemaker" - Mr. Mubarak has assumed the role as the only Arab statesman who can connect with all parties.
"When the time comes for selling [a deal] on the Arab and Palestinian side, Egypt will play an important role," says Steven Riskin, a Mideast specialist with the US Institute of Peace in Washington. "Where else do you turn?
Egypt made Camp David - site of the current summit - famous for the peace agreement with Israel in 1978. It was the first Arab nation to do so, but Egypt paid heavily for breaking Arab unity, and agreeing to what Arabs called the "Camp David sell-out."
Egypt was suspended from the Arab League, and not fully accepted back until the 1990 Iraq invasion of Kuwait, which redefined intra-Arab ties. Egypt's continuing "cold peace" with Israel has, however, enabled it to renew its credibility across the Arab world.
It was Cairo, for example, that hosted the Arab summit in 1996, to protest the hard-line policies of Israel's new prime minister at the time, Benjamin Netanyahu.
So as the old, intractable questions are focused on anew - the Camp David talks aim for common ground on hot-button "final status" issues of Jerusalem, the shape of a Palestinian state, Jewish settlers, and the fate of millions of refugees - Mubarak offers all sides a shoulder to cry on.
"Egypt is not at Camp David, but all sides consult," says Mohamed Sid-Ahmed, a prominent Egyptian intellectual in Cairo. "Arafat comes to complain about his problems, and both Barak and Clinton are interested in Egypt helping to soften certain issues."
Few forget King Hussein's dramatic intervention in the Wye talks 1 1/2 years ago. He was lauded for participating at the US's behest, despite being ill with cancer. But while Mubarak has intervened sporadically in past peace efforts, he refused to take part at Wye - because of Israel's failure to carry out past agreements, Egyptian sources say.
Today that decision may have enhanced his credibility among Arabs, by proving that he could act independently.
"I'm not sure how much [Hussein] made the combatants show a little flexibility in the final steps," says Mark Heller, an analyst with the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University. "He got his brownie points sort of by default - Mubarak refused to go. For the Palestinians looking for a heavyweight to fight in their corner, Mubarak has much more appeal."
Still, Israel recognizes that Mr. Arafat listens to Mubarak, and so Barak - traveling four times to Cairo in the past six months, and sending ministers three other times - asked Egypt to impress upon Palestinians to "bend a bit."
"Barak wants to make a maximum effort to show that he is being as reasonable as possible," Mr. Heller says. "A lot of what is going on is preparing not for the negotiations, but for the aftermath, in case it falls apart."
Mubarak's tough line on Jerusalem, however - he reminded Arafat just days ago that this sacred city is the concern of all Arabs and Muslims - and the Egyptian president's intention to recognize any state that Arafat declares, has its critics.
"The energy expended by the government in enlisting Egypt's assistance stemmed from the illusion that Egypt is prepared to act as a bridge between Israel and the Palestinian authority," wrote Moshe Zak, a former editor of Israel's Maariv newspaper, in the Jerusalem Post. "The opposite is the case. Egypt encourages Palestinian extremism and pushes Arafat not to compromise."
Nevertheless, Mubarak is carving out a new peace role, at a time when efforts are being largely dictated by Clinton's timetable.
Egyptians say that this is their nation's natural role, since Egypt's population of 60 million is the largest in the Arab world.
"Carrying the weight of Egypt is very important for the momentum of a deal - it opens the way to the Arab world," says Mohamed el-Sayed Said, an analyst at the semi-official Al-Ahram think tank in Cairo. Mubarak "was about to wash his hands of the whole business," because of Israeli delays in implementing previous agreements.
At home, Mubarak is hardly a democrat. In power for 19 years - since the assassination of Anwar Sadat, who was killed for his peace "betrayal" of the Arab cause - he has not appointed a vice president to guarantee an orderly succession.
A yes-or-no referendum on Mubarak's rule last September reminded many of "elections" in dictatorships like Syria and Iraq.
And among a series of other acts that have caused human rights groups to cry foul in the run-up to legislative elections, a prominent Egyptian sociologist, Saad Eddin Ibrahim - who is also an American citizen - has been arrested and his offices raided three times.
Since the Camp David Accord the US has pumped $32 billion in aid to Egypt since 1978 - a figure second only to aid to Israel, a close US ally.
"Mubarak is realizing that with the absence of Assad and King Hussein, the mantle of regional main player is his - and he thinks he is entitled to it," says Musa Keilani, editor of Jordan's Al-Urdon weekly in Amman. "He wants to be the prima donna in the region, and is asserting his role."
But it may be too soon to calculate that influence on what is happening behind the closed doors at Camp David.
"I think this gathering will not fail - there will not be an admission of failure, and therefore no acceptance of an impasse that could degenerate into violence," says Mr. Sid-Ahmed, echoing a common view in the region. "But it can't succeed, because elements of success are not ripe. It's too much of a Clinton game than a game of the Middle East."
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society