Egypt warms to Israel in peace push

Muslim militants threw shoes and jeered at Egypt's foreign minister Monday during his visit to Israel.

For two countries that rarely speak to one another at senior levels, it was a rare display of warmth.

"President Mubarak has sent me here on a mission of peace," declared Ahmed Maher, the Egyptian foreign minister. Standing by his side, his Israeli counterpart Silvan Shalom said, "Your visit is an opening for a warming of relations."

Although Egypt was the first Arab country to sign a peace treaty with Israel, ties have traditionally been cool and they worsened three years ago after the eruption of the Palestinian uprising. Cairo had withdrawn its ambassador to protest Israel's hard-hitting suppression of the intifadah. But Monday, during the highest-level visit by an Egyptian in three years, each side spoke about improving relations - Israel immediately, and Egypt gradually and alongside a revival of the peace process.

The cordiality was all the more surprising in the wake of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's threat last week to take "unilateral steps" in the occupied territories, a policy widely viewed in Cairo as a disastrous recipe for annexation, instability, and the eradication of hopes for a viable Palestinian state.

The visit is not being welcomed by all. When Mr. Maher went to pray at the Aksa mosque holy site, some worshipers threw shoes and other objects at him, calling him a traitor.

Egyptian analysts believe that Maher was dispatched to Israel in order to try to dissuade Mr. Sharon from the "unilateral steps" and to keep alive the international peace blueprint, the road map, that calls for a viable Palestinian state alongside a secure Israel.

To do this, Cairo first needs to warm up, at least rhetorically, its cold peace with the Jewish state, the analysts say. "It is difficult to play the mediator if you do not have relations with both sides of the equation," says Hala Mustafa, an analyst at the Al Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies in Cairo.

Egypt's warmer approach began two weeks ago with a meeting in Geneva between Shalom and Egypt's president. Monday Shalom was invited to Cairo. In between, Sharon gave a major speech that laid out a "separation plan" for unilateral Israeli steps within months unless the Palestinians resume talks and shut down militant groups as stipulated in the road map.

These include:

• Completing the separation barrier, obstensibly to thwart terrorist infiltrations. It cuts through Palestinian land on the West Bank and fragments the area.

• Moving some Israeli settlements in accordance with an Army redeployment.

• "Strengthening Israel's control" in West Bank areas that Sharon says Israel will retain under a peace agreement.

In the view of Leslie Susser, diplomatic correspondent of the Jerusalem Report magazine, Sharon is giving the Palestinians a chance to negotiate before taking the steps, and sees an Egyptian role in facilitating a summit between himself and the Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia, and in persuading Palestinian groups to unilaterally cease fire. Maher Monday urged Mr. Qureia to meet with Sharon "without preconditions."

"The big question remains, what exactly does Sharon mean by unilateral steps? Is he talking about a big withdrawal or a small withdrawal?" Ms. Susser says. "Will there also be a security fence in the eastern part of the West Bank?"

Maher referred only briefly to the unilateral steps, saying he told Sharon that "steps should be taken in the framework of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, not by one party." Maher treaded softly in reference to Israeli Army incursions in the occupied territories.

But beneath Maher's tact and diplomacy lies grave concern over where Sharon is headed, say the Egyptian analysts. Salameh Ahmed Salameh, a columnist for Al Ahram newspaper, says: "Maher is trying to restrain Sharon. Sharon's plan will end all prospects of implementing the road map and a two state solution. It will create realities on the ground that are difficult afterwards to change."

"The road map is about to be dead, or perhaps it has been dead for a long time," Salameh says, adding that the recent failure in Cairo of Palestinian cease-fire talks, since relaunched, also played a role in the road map's demise. He does not expect a genuine warming of ties with Israel.

But Mustafa disagrees. She predicts Maher will return to Tel Aviv. With the defeat of Saddam Hussein's regime, "we are seeing a kind of defeat of the old extremist ideologies and of pan-Arab ideas that dominated Arab political thought for a long time," she says. "Maher's visit shows Egypt is willing to deal with any party in Israel, including Ariel Sharon."

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