One of many problems in making Middle East peace is that no one wants to go first. Decades of injustice, violence, and false promises have sown such distrust that the players look for proof of sincerity from others before considering a move themselves.
As a consequence, they all stand frozen, waiting – as if on the shore of a cold lake – for the other one to jump in.
The Obama administration is trying to shake up the waiting game by moving all parties in "parallel steps" toward a return to Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. "Everybody's going to have to take steps; everybody's going to have to take some risks," Barack Obama said this week at a press conference with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.
"Everybody" must include Egypt itself. As the most populous Arab nation, as neighbor to the troublesome Gaza Strip, as erstwhile peace partner with Israel, Egypt plays a critical role in the region. But even as American special envoy George Mitchell scurries around the Middle East trying to get the peace ducks in a row, Egypt and the Arab nations could be doing much more to support Mr. Mitchell's efforts.
Encouragingly, some progress is being made, as President Obama pointed out this week. Since coming to power five months ago, the Israeli government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has not issued any new contracts for construction of new Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank – a key demand of Washington and the Palestinians and a sore point between Israel and the new US administration.
Obama also highlighted Israeli easing up on checkpoints in the West Bank and increased economic activity there. Meanwhile, positive developments are visible in both Palestinian factions. The secular and moderate Fatah, ruling in the West Bank, has greatly improved its security forces, and thus stability. In the Gaza Strip, the militant Islamist Hamas has remained fairly quiet – except for its recent vicious attack on a rival Islamist group there.
Egypt and other Arab nations appear to be the odd men out here. For several years, Cairo has pledged to end the split between Fatah and Hamas – without which an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal seems impossible. Yet its attempt to broker between the two has so far yielded no concrete results. Egypt has also promised to end weapons smuggling into Gaza, including rockets, but arms still flow. Neither has Cairo been able to negotiate the release of an Israeli soldier held hostage since 2006.
It's disheartening that Arab nations reject the administration's request for small steps toward normalizing relations with Israel. Those steps include overflight rights for Israeli civilian aircraft and increased cultural cooperation with Israel.
But as Mr. Mubarak made clear in Washington, Arab support is conditional. "If negotiations start," he said, then Arab states will support moving the peace process forward. Apparently, Arab autocrats still need Israel as a foe to deflect public disappointment from their own poor performance.
It's no secret that Mubarak was unhappy with the previous US administration. The Egyptian autocrat stayed away from Washington for five years because he objected to the Iraq war and US support for the 2006 Israeli invasion of Lebanon. Cairo also bristled at the Bush administration's public pressure for democracy in Egypt and for improvement in the country's poor human rights record.
But the Egyptian leader has no more excuses. Obama, showing spine toward Israel, is giving him considerable maneuvering room. Indeed, Mubarak praised the US president for his "fantastic" speech to the Muslim world delivered from Cairo in June, and the Egyptian president says he appreciates Mitchell's listening approach. Notably, it was Mubarak himself who said that he and Obama discussed internal reform in Egypt. No public lecturing needed from Obama on that front.
Well into his third decade in office, Mubarak should have his own interests in moving the peace process forward. A negotiated Palestinian state and normalized relations between Israel and the Arab world would amount to a historic legacy. And as Mubarak has noted repeatedly, insecurity next door means insecurity in Egypt. Further, the lack of a peace deal helps spread Iranian influence – something Egypt opposes.
The new US administration's "everyone together" approach is worth a try, but it won't work if Egypt and the Arab states hold out. Obama has just made it much easier for Mubarak to wade in alongside Israelis and Palestinians. Egypt's president should don his swim trunks, and bring his Arab brothers with him. The shock of peace can be refreshing.