Monday, August 17, 2009

Hosni Mubarak in Washington

In February 1982 when Hosni Mubarak made his first visit to Washington as Egypt's president, it was Ronald Reagan who was waiting for him in the White House.

There were many visits in the intervening years, though Mubarak avoided coming during most of George W. Bush's tenure, miffed at administration demands for democratization.

Now, Mubarak, age 81, is back.

Washington-Cairo relations are again on track; US pressure for reform is less heavy-handed and less public. Mubarak will meet with President Barack Obama on Tuesday, and is scheduled to see American Jewish leaders today. Cairo views the visit as an opportunity to reclaim its place as America's key ally in the Arab world.

The two issues topping the agenda - just as they did 27 years ago - are the Palestinians and economic ties. Bilateral trade today stands at $8.4 billion; annual US aid is pegged at $2b. On economics, the Egyptians are pushing for more non-energy sector trade. They also want to decrease (from 11 percent) the amount of goods produced by Israeli companies participating in the Egypt-US-Israel Qualified Industrial Zones - duty-free gateways to the American market.

MUBARAK will be pushing Obama to present yet another international plan to solve the Arab-Israeli conflict and echoing with gusto the Obama administration's call for a construction freeze over the Green Line. Of course, it would be far more helpful were Cairo - and Washington - to urge Mahmoud Abbas's Palestinian Authority to return to the bargaining table and respond constructively to Binyamin Netanyahu's seminal Bar-Ilan address of two months ago.

The settlement freeze issue is a diversion because in any final status agreement, Jewish communities on the "Palestine" side of the border would be relocated to the Israeli side. Egypt should instead be pressing Abbas to negotiate as if he really wanted a Palestinian state. This means dropping unrealistic demands for an Israeli pullback to the 1949 Armistice Lines; finding a mechanism to share Jerusalem (Israel has proposed several ideas); accepting that "Palestine" will have to be demilitarized, and abandoning calls for the so-called Palestinian right of return to Israel proper.

Egypt has been working to promote a Palestinian national unity government that has the support of both Fatah and Hamas. In Washington, Mubarak needs to hear that harmony among the Palestinians will be meaningful only insofar as it leads to reconciliation with Israel, an end to terror and a commitment to fulfill previous Palestinian commitments. Cairo appears to be playing a helpful role in indirect talks between Israel and Hamas aimed at freeing Gilad Schalit. And since Egypt faces a dual threat - from Sunni jihadists connected to al-Qaida and from Shi'ite Iran's infiltration of the Palestinian cause via Hamas - it is wise to be trying harder to stem the flow of weapons from Sinai into Gaza.

However, in urging Arab Gulf states to reject the administration requests that they improve relations with Israel, Cairo is being decidedly unhelpful, especially since it should be in the vanguard of building trust between the Arab world and Israel. It is being reckless in its plans to redirect worldwide concern over Iran's quest for nuclear weapons, to Israel's non-threatening nuclear program at next month's UN General Assembly session.

Plainly, Cairo does recognize the menace the Iranian regime presents to Egypt and the region. It has quietly allowed an Israeli dolphin-class submarine and missile cruisers to transit the Suez Canal - a clear signal to Teheran. It continues to crack down on the Muslim Brotherhood, saying that some of its members have been spying for Iran while others have been accepting money from Hizbullah.

ARGUABLY, Mubarak's regime could have done more to institutionalize representative government without jeopardizing its own stability. In squashing the reformists, the regime has forced opponents to coalesce around Muslim extremists. Twenty percent of the parliamentary opposition are "independents" associated with the Brotherhood.

We can't predict whether Mubarak will seek reelection in 2011. But when he leaves the scene it is in Israel's highest interest that his successors uphold Egypt's peace treaty obligations.

Israelis have long regretted Mubarak's insistence on a "cold peace" rather than one that would have served as a template for genuine reconciliation between Arabs and Israelis. We would be delighted if he yet changed course

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