The diplomacy of the Arab world is done quietly, over thimble-size cups of cardamom-flavored coffee or a plate of hummus. Above all, it is done face to face.
President Clinton, following criticism of his administration's failure to win broad Arab assistance in its attempt to negotiate a final peace between Israel and the Palestinians, on Aug. 29 squeezed a meeting with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak into a busy schedule of international travel.
Their meeting, in an opulent reception room at Cairo's airport, took just an hour and a half. "It's a good move," says Judith Kipper, the director of the Middle East program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. "Better late than never."
The meeting did little to dispel the uncertainty over whether the Israelis and the Palestinians can indeed bring an end to their century of conflict anytime soon. These days both sides mainly urge the other to face compromise or risk failure. US officials in particular refrain from optimistic pronouncements.
But President Mubarak sounded upbeat after his meeting with Clinton, and perhaps relieved to have been consulted. "I'm always hopeful," he said. "And I think with the cooperation with the United States and their support, I think [a peace deal] should be reached."
It may be that Egypt's involvement is coming at just the right time. "There was not enough Egyptian-American coordination at [last month's Camp David] summit," says Abdel-Monem Said, director of Egypt's state-funded Al-Ahram Center for Strategic and Political Studies in Cairo. "If that had happened there might have been more progress, but I'm not so sure."
Going into the summit, Mr. Said says, Egyptian and other Arab observers were much less optimistic about the likelihood of success than the Americans, and cautioned against characterizing the meeting as one that might yield a solution to the core dispute of the Arab-Israeli conflict. They urged the US simply to open the discussions, but they were not consulted by US officials and found themselves effectively shut out of the proceedings.
Now that Camp David has "failed" and all the parties must face the prospect of co-existence - and perhaps conflict - in the absence of a deal, Egypt's president and other Arab leaders may be more willing to take part. But Richard Murphy, a former senior US diplomat, notes that it is anything but easy for these leaders to consider the compromises that peacemaking between Israelis and Palestinians will require.
In making peace with Egypt or negotiating peace with Syria, Israel has demonstrated a willingness to give back all or very nearly all the land it seized from those states in Arab-Israeli wars. Not so with the Palestinians. In this instance, Israel appears willing to return a great deal of the Palestinian land it seized in 1967 - while insisting that it keep parts of both the West Bank and East Jerusalem.
The Palestinians and their fellow Arabs, meanwhile, demand that Israel honor UN resolutions that require it to return lands seized in war as the basis for a peace settlement.
But the bottom line is that Arab leaders are facing the deeply unpleasant prospect of "losing" the city, at least in part. "This humiliation, as they see it, of being asked ... to admit that they have lost Jerusalem, is very heavy," Mr. Murphy says.
Jerusalem's Old City contains the most-hallowed ground in all of Judaism and Christianity, plus the third-holiest site in Islam. Moreover, the Jewish and Muslim sites overlap, making for very difficult decisions on who will have sovereignty over particular areas of the Old City. Finally, both the Israelis and the Palestinians claim the city as their capital.
Another problem is that there are very real reasons for Mubarak and other Arab leaders not to stick their necks out for peace. If Mubarak were to stand up in favor of a compromise on Jerusalem, he risks giving his pro-Islam political opponents a new rallying cry against him.
The Egyptian leader has thoroughly put down his Islamist opposition, sometime ignoring human rights considerations, but it might make life easier for him not to stir them up. Still, notes Said, Mubarak has a large-scale reason to press for peace: "International currents of investment don't go to unstable regions."
Until now, says Ms. Kipper of CSIS, the administration has focused too narrowly on the divisions between the Israelis and the Palestinians - overlooking the regional impact that a settlement of the Jerusalem issue would have.
While the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is essentially a political dispute, the fate of Jerusalem is something that at least indirectly affects millions of Muslims, Christians, and Jews around the world.
It came as no surprise to many analysts that Mr. Arafat reportedly would not concede ground - literally or figuratively - in discussing Jerusalem at Camp David. Even though Arab nations have mixed dismissiveness with support in their treatment of the Palestinians, he still needs broad Arab backing to cut a deal that involves any compromise on the city.
Mubarak's involvement promises just that sort of backing, but the exact nature of the Egyptian role is unclear. Dennis Ross, Clinton's special Middle East coordinator, told reporters after the two presidents met that "there is no question right now that Egypt is making a very genuine effort in keeping with the role that Egypt has always played when it comes to peace."
Even though Egypt was the first Arab state to make peace with Israel, that peace is still very much a frosty affair that involves little real partnership between the two countries.
It remains to be seen whether the US will make similar approaches to enlist the aid of other Arab friends, such as Saudi Arabia, or perhaps ask Egypt to do so.
A concerted regional approach may be the only way for Clinton to achieve a breakthrough in Middle East peace before he steps down next January. "This is an act of desperation - Clinton going to Cairo," says Kipper. "Everything else they've tried has failed."
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society