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Analysis: Why in Egypt? (JERUSALEM POST) By HERB KEINON 02/02/05)Source: http://www.jpost.com/servlet/Satellite?pagename=JPost/JPArticle/ShowFull&cid=1107314591625 JERUSALEM POST JERUSALEM POST Articles-Index-TopPublishers-Index-Top
Back in 2003, when Egypt and Jordan were vying for the privilege of hosting a summit starring US President George W. Bush, then PA prime minister Mahmoud Abbas, and Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, Sharon vetoed holding the meeting in Egypt.

Sharon made clear at the time that with Israeli Druze Azzam Azzam languishing in a Cairo jail cell, he was not about to throw a bone of any sort to Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.

Sharon said as much at a cabinet meeting at the time, and also added that he was unwilling "to pay a red cent" to get the Egyptians to return their ambassador to Israel. This dovetailed well with Sharon´s putting an end to the prevailing practice before he came into office in 2001 of Israeli leaders making frequent visits - some called them "pilgrimages" - to Egypt to meet and consult with Mubarak.

As a result of Sharon´s objections, Mubarak had to suffice with hosting a summit at Sharm el-Sheikh that included Bush and some pro- American Arab leaders. The more marquee event, however, the event that "launched" the road map, was held next-door in Aqaba.

Jordan rejoiced and reveled in the international limelight; Egypt quietly nursed the insult.

That Sharon is now willing to hold his first meeting since the Palestinian elections with Abbas on Egyptian soil, under Egyptian sponsorship and with Mubarak taking part, shows the extent to which Israel´s relations with Egypt have improved over the last year and a half.

Just as Yasser Arafat was the cork that plugged up any possible Israeli movement with the Palestinians, so Azzam´s incarceration was a barrier to any drastic improvement of Israeli-Egyptian ties. By releasing Azzam in December, Mubarak took Egypt off Sharon´s "not to visit" list.

But the question that must be asked by Wednesday´s surprise announcement to hold the summit in Sharm el-Sheikh is why. Why do it in Egypt? What do the sides gain by holding the talks there?

Egypt, as always preoccupied with trying to get Washington to recognize and appreciate that they are playing a "constructive" role in the region, stands to gain a great deal of points for holding the summit, and taking such a central role in the rapidly intensifying Palestinian-Israeli security coordination.

These points are especially important for Cairo now, following the Iraqi elections and growing calls in the US for something similar to be held elsewhere in the Arab world, even in Egypt.

Were Egypt to be seen in the US as a barrier to an Israeli- Palestinian rapprochement, or as somehow not cooperating with the disengagement plan, voices slamming Egypt´s lack of democracy would resonate much louder in Washington.

For Abbas, who will be facing some tough decisions and will be forced at some time – at least if the process is to move forward - to take unpopular steps on the Palestinian street and move to dismantle Hamas and Islamic Jihad, it is good for him to have Egyptian cover.

Holding his first meeting with Sharon in Cairo, and not in Jerusalem, sends a signal to the Palestinian extremists, as well as outside forces such as Hizbullah, Syria and Iran, that the moves Abbas is taking are not just his own whim, but are supported by the Arab world´s most important country. Signals Egypt sends out on disengagement and on Abbas´ steps will influence considerably how other Arab countries respond as well.

As far as Sharon is concerned, once Mubarak asked for the meeting to be held on Egyptian soil, it was clear Israel could not refuse.

In order for disengagement to work, in order to ensure that Rafah - after Israel´s withdrawal – will not to turn into the terror capital of the world, and that Gaza will not become Hamastan, Egypt is going to have to play a considerable role.

Israel needs the Egyptians to patrol its own border and ensure that terrorists and arms are not smuggled into Gaza, and to actively train and supervise the Palestinian security forces. By sponsoring this summit, Egypt is very publicly tying itself to the whole process; committing itself to playing an active role. And that is something Sharon has a real interest in encouraging. (© 1995-2005, The Jerusalem Post 02/02/05)

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