Even in the unpredictable world of Middle East diplomacy, there are some unwritten truisms. Among them is that the road to Mideast peace goes through Cairo.
Now, with Washington playing a subdued role in Mideast peacemaking, analysts say Cairo has emerged as the voice of moderation, balancing what it sees as its role as the chief Arab defender of Palestinian rights, and as an Arab nation determined not to abandon its 1979 peace treaty with the Jewish state.
Yesterday, Israeli media reported that Egypt is trying to arrange a peace summit next week between Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat in a bid to end two months of hostilities that have claimed more than 280 lives, most of them Palestinian.
Egypt fears continued clashes between Israelis and the Palestinians can spill over into the rest of the region, causing further instability. To that end, it has increased its inter-Arab contacts with key allies, like Jordan and Saudi Arabia, while working alongside the Palestinians.
At the same time, Egypt expressed its displeasure with Israeli "aggression," in an almost unprecedented way, by recalling its ambassador from Tel Aviv - for only the second time during its 21 years of diplomatic relations with the Jewish state.
"It was like a jolt," says Abdel Moneim Said, director of Cairo's Al Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies. "The withdrawal has triggered the attention of Israel, Washington, and the Russians that things will not go as usual between Egypt and Israel."
The recall triggered a flurry of diplomatic activity between Israel and Egypt. Still, since Cairo stopped just short of cutting ties altogether with Israel, it continues to be the regional diplomatic lifeline between Israel and the Arabs.
Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak resisted hard-line calls from the recent Islamic Summit in Qatar and Cairo's Arab Summit to conduct jihad, or holy war, against Israel. Although some Arabs hoped the summits' final declarations had more "bite," calling for punitive measures against Israel, Mubarak's measured diplomacy sought the middle way, forsaking violent redress while upping the political ante, showing that it could not be business as usual between Israel and the Arabs.
Former Egyptian diplomat Tahsin Bashir, a vocal proponent of peace in the region, discounts the theory that Egypt joined the more hard-line Arab sentiment toward Israel. "During the recent Arab Summit in Cairo and the Islamic Summit in Qatar, Egypt was careful not to take an extreme position such as calling for jihad [but] to keep the door open to peace, " Mr. Bashir says.
Mr. Said concurs: "If Egypt wanted to do that, it would have cut ties following the Arab Summit in October. It would have had a far greater impact in the media at that time, and it would have looked good in the Arab street."
Some Egyptians praised Mubarak's moderating influence over the summit's final statement, while others expressed disappointment that the Arabs did not go far enough in condemning Israeli military actions against the Palestinians.
To meet domestic consumption as well as express its solidarity with the Palestinian cause, Egypt has tartly rebuked Israeli actions. Yesterday, in a letter to the UN committee on Palestinian rights, Mubarak lashed out at the "unjustified military force" to the Palestinian uprising.
Samir Ragab, editor-in-chief of the Gomhuriya and Egyptian Gazette dailies and close confidant of the Egyptian leader, says, "Mubarak has sternly warned that violence breeds violence, and that security could not be maintained through the barrel of a gun and the killing of innocents. For Egypt and the Arabs, peace is a strategic option."
For Israel, keeping Egypt as a strategic partner has been compelling. Egypt was the first Arab country to sign a peace treaty with Israel in 1979. Jordan, the only other Arab country with a peace treaty, has deferred sending an ambassador-designate to Tel Aviv until the clashes ended. And around the Arab world, the violence has generated a wellspring of antipathy toward the Jewish state.
Morocco, Tunisia, Qatar, and Oman have fallen into line with Arab ranks by shutting their fledgling commercial or liaison offices with Israel. The North African state of Mauritania has been the only hold-out, although opposition groups there have taken to the streets demanding Mauritania cut diplomatic ties.
Analysts also point to Cairo's quiet handling of the arrest of an Egyptian on charges of spying for Israel as evidence that it does not want to further fan anti-Israeli sentiments at home.
"Egypt is the linchpin for regional stability, and its moves must be carefully weighed," said Mohamed Bassiouny, the Egyptian ambassador, recalled from Tel Aviv. "Our position is unchanged: The use of violence cannot bring about peace. The [Palestinian] uprising has proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that peace cannot be achieved unless a satisfactory solution to many problems can be reached."
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society