Egypt is rapidly assuming a major role in the ongoing drama of bringing Israel and the Palestinian Authority back to the negotiating table.
Peace talks, sponsored by the previous Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert, broke down in December 2008. Since then, despite the best endeavours of all the leading players, direct discussions have not been resumed. As I indicate in my last piece ("Mahmoud Abbas Under Pressure"), many factors are contributing to the stalemate – not least, President Obama's over-optimistic expectations when he took office in January 2009. Clearly an honest broker, acceptable to both main parties, is required. It looks as though Egypt is not only willing, but eager, to accept the position.
Egypt has already emerged as a major player on the Palestine/Israel stage, although in a somewhat anomalous role. She has maintained as rigorous a blockade of Gaza as Israel, and is actively blocking off the tunnels used by Hamas to smuggle goods across her border at the Rafah crossing. At the same time, Egypt has been taking the lead in negotiating with Hamas for the release of the captured Israeli soldier, Gilad Shalit.
Yesterday Israel's Defense Minister, Ehud Barak, travelled to Sharm-el-Sheik to meet with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. Their main topics of discussion are expected to be three: how to get talks between Israel and the Palestinian Authority back on track, how to conclude negotiations for the release of Gilad Shalit, and future security cooperation between Israel and Egypt.
The recent visit of US special envoy, George Mitchell, to Mahmoud Abbas produced little result. Barak and Mubarak, along with Egyptian intelligence chief Omar Suleiman, will certainly be discussing ways to persuade Abbas to return to the negotiating table, and in doing so they may refer to some of the ideas for renewing peace discussions already presented to Abbas by the US administration. One that was publicly announced by Palestinian sources was the launch of preliminary negotiations by low-ranking representatives, in order to map out positions on core issues and the gaps between the parties.
Last September the Higher Arab Monitoring Committee (or the Higher Follow-Up Committee, as it is sometimes called) determined that before peace discussions were resumed, a "guarantee statement" was required from the United States that would include a commitment that the territory of an independent Palestine would be defined by the 1967 borders, that any changes to that would be subject to negotiations, and that East Jerusalem would be recognized as the Palestinian capital. (The Committee, when formally set up in 1982 to represent the interests of Arab Palestinians, declared itself to be "a supreme framework of the Arab public and its aspirations").
Egypt is a participating member of the Committee, and this "guarantee statement" caused a public row between Egypt and Qatar, which announced that the Egyptian delegation that visited Washington ten days ago did not demand any guarantees from the United States.
After initial denials, Egypt issued a statement saying it did indeed demand these guarantees from the United States – but it seems to have failed to obtain American agreement to them. This "guarantee statement" appears to have become something of a bone of contention between Egypt and the United States.
Playing honest broker has its hazards.