Egypt brightens Middle East horizon
Georgie Anne Geyer, Universal Press Syndicate
December 10, 2004
WASHINGTON -- Just when the Iraq war looks to be at its worst, just after
Yasser Arafat has died and the Israelis are still attacking Gaza, just
when everybody has about given up hope for any peace settlement, there
are, seemingly overnight, some positive signs on the Middle East horizon.
Dare one expect that these new indicators for peace could finally be real?
Undeniably, within the last week, a series of events, mostly initiated
by an increasingly impatient Egypt, has revealed a new veneer on the ugly
problem of Israel and Palestine.
The events, obviously some time in the preparation, showered upon us like
unexpected spring rain. On Dec. 3, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak praised
Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon as the Palestinians' "best hope for
peace." Then it became public, after months of quiet negotiation, that
Egypt and Israel are going to open no fewer than seven Qualified Industrial
Zones on the two countries' border.
Finally, we learned that not only Egypt, but also Tunisia, Oman and Morocco,
may send their ambassadors, recalled in 2000, back to Israel.
These developments are the result of months of negotiation in Jerusalem
involving Egyptian intelligence chief Omar Suleiman and the Sharon government;
they are also the result of Egypt's impatience with the old Palestinian
leadership and Egyptian support for Palestinian moderate leader Mahmoud
Abbas. And they are the result of Prime Minister Sharon's showdown with
his own Likud Party and his attempts to form a unity government with leftist
Labor in order to get out of Gaza.
In the political kabuki of Middle East symbolic moves, the first real
indicator of something in the air came Sunday, when Egypt released an
Israeli convicted of spying some years ago and Israel freed six young
Egyptian infiltrators. At about the same time, it was reported that, in
place of the usual police, Egypt had agreed to deploy 750 special border
guards along the Gaza Strip to prevent Palestinian arms smuggling. Then
the State Department announced that the Bush administration tentatively
backed Britain's plan for an international Middle East peace conference
in London after the Palestinian leadership elections on Jan. 9.
The "business" part of these deals is especially revealing. While negotiations
through the American trade representative have been going on between Egypt
and Israel for some time about the Qualified Industrial Zones (areas along
both sides of the border employing Arab labor and Israel's trade entrance
into the United States), the details only became semi-public this week.
The Egyptian position was that there must be some economic dividend to
their involvement in the Palestinian question, and now there will be:
Officials predict the seven new industrial zones will create 50,000 jobs,
an income to the country of $1 billion over the next five years, and an
opening to foreign investment, tourism and support for small and medium
Palestinian sources warn against expecting too much. Some Arabs admit
that the Iraq war has jarred the whole area into a new mood. But for now,
the part Iraq has played in these changes remains as uncertain as any
future U.S. "disengagement" there. With the death of Arafat and with the
re-election of President Bush, all the former equations are up in the
air. So it is a pregnant moment, and one to watch. The conflict had to
end sometime--or so, until now, we always helplessly thought.
Georgie Anne Geyer is a syndicated columnist based in Washington
Copyright © 2004, Chicago Tribune