Why Israel is leaning on Egypt's Hosni Mubarak to nudge peace process

Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, a staple of Mideast politics for more than 30 years, hosted Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Cairo this weekend amid rising concerns about Mubarak's health.

Amr Nabil/AP Photo
Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, right, shakes hands with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, left, before their talks at the Presidential palace in Cairo, Egypt, July 18. Talks come within the framework of efforts aimed at reviving the Middle East peace process.

With fresh reports about the health of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu may be feeling a greater sense of urgency to advance peace talks before possible regime change next door.

Calling Egypt under Mr. Mubarak's leadership "a main factor in advancing peace and stability in the region," Mr. Netanyahu traveled to Cairo this weekend to meet the man who has been a staple of Middle East politics for more than 30 years. Mubarak also hosted Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas and US envoy George Mitchell.

Netanyahu needed the meeting to show Israelis back at home that the peace process is moving – which could boost his leverage over restless coalition partners, particularly Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman's ultranationalist Yisrael Beiteinu party, which are upset with some of Netanyahu's recent decisions.

"[The summit] is for domestic purposes,'' says Meir Javedanfar, a Middle East analyst based in Tel Aviv. "Netanyahu wants to come up with progress because he wants to reduce pressure from Washington, and to reduce Lieberman's influence.''

But after the Cairo summit this weekend, Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit said not enough progress had been made.

US mediation, which succeeded in restarting indirect negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians this spring, has so far failed to move both sides to direct talks. Mr. Abbas has said the Palestinians will not do so until the Israelis permanently freeze settlement growth in the West Bank and East Jerusalem.

Why Egypt's role is increasingly crucial to Israel

Egypt has long served as a regional mediator, but its role goes beyond that, say analysts.

Cairo's clout with the Arab League makes it a crucial ally for Palestinians, who recently have begun relying on the league to back up any major decisions on negotiations with Israel. Earlier this year, for example, the Arab League gave the Palestinians political cover to begin indirect talks despite unfulfilled demands that Israel stop settlement building.

"The [Palestinian Authority] listens to the Egyptians, and are always coordinated with the [Egyptian] government,'' says Kadoura Fares, a former Palestinian cabinet minister who believes Egypt and the Arab League will help Abbas return to direct talks. "The Palestinian Authority leadership can't convince the public [to support negotiations], and they use the Arab League ... to hide behind the concept of Arab coordination.''

Both the US and Israel have called for starting direct talks before the end of September. Palestinians, however, are demanding more Israeli gestures – like an extension of a temporary freeze on housing starts in the Jewish settlements – to boost their confidence that Israel is committed to a peace deal.

But ministers in the Israeli government, such as Mr. Lieberman, argue that Israel should not give any more concessions before direct talks actually begin.

'Mubarak is the one who can galvanize the Arabs'

The Arab League is scheduled to hold a meeting at the end of the month, less than two weeks after Sunday's flurry of diplomacy in Cairo, to discuss the negotiations. If Abbas were to be seen conceding his long-held precondition for direct talks, the Arab League must give its backing.

Though the Arab League role helps bolster a Palestinian leadership which has been hobbled by internal conflict with Hamas, it also makes diplomacy more complicated.

"It’s a blessing and a curse. Cairo has become a necessary stop on the circuit in order to get the Arab League on board,'' says David Makovsky, the coauthor of a book on the peace process, "Myths, Illusions, and Peace.''

"Mubarak is the one who can galvanize the Arabs to give the support which Abbas believes he needs to move head-on negotiations.''

Arab, Israeli, and US news media have been reporting in recent weeks that Mubarak is in failing health.

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