The Middle East Club of Four Is Founded in Sharm

The most significant feature of the four-way summit that took place on Tuesday, February 8, at the Egyptian Red Sea resort to Sharm el-Sheikh, was that it was the first time in Israel’s 57 years’ life that one of its leaders was asked to join three Arab rulers at any forum without outside mediators or an international aegis.
The key to this unique event was embodied in President George W. Bush’s directive Thursday night, February 3, to secretary of state Condoleezza Rice, not to show up at the Middle East summit. The European Union followed her lead, as did Arab leaders who planned to attend like the King of Morocco, the emir of Qatar and the Tunisian president. Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon, the newly-elected Palestinian Authority chairman, Mahmoud Abbas – Abu Mazen, Jordan’s King Abdullah and their beaming host, President Hosni Mubarak, were thus thrown together alone and confronted with the task of forging a form of accord. With careful choreographing and expectations of little more than initial ice-breaking in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, they succeeded quite well.
In this sense, the Sharm summit stood out as a landmark with two far-reaching implications:
1. A new Middle East Club of Four came into being. With a good measure of audacity and inventiveness, this bloc could dictate the next steps towards lifting the Israel-Palestinian dispute out of its stalemate – or even play a role in other conflicts, such as Lebanon and Iraq. Mubarak hinted as much in his closing speech when he urged Israel to embrace Syria and Lebanon in its peace diplomacy. This call was taken as a token response to a request from Syrian president Bashar Assad to raise the Syrian issue at the summit. In fact, the Egyptian ruler was already beginning to weave other regional issues in with the conflict on the table.
2. The Middle East Club of Four will need to pace itself against that of the absent nations – Saudi Arabia, Syria, Turkey, all the Gulf emirates and even East Africa. Interestingly, by coming together alone, the four leaders cut themselves off from big power or even regional intervention. If the group endures long enough, it might even solidify into a distinct Egyptian-Israeli-Jordanian-Palestinian military-intelligence pact. A candidate for fifth member might be Iraq, which might find useful alternative export routes for its oil through Jordan’s Red Sea port of Aqaba and Israel’s Mediterranean ports of Haifa or Ashkelon.
The current abject state of Palestinian-Israeli relations after four and a half years of bloody terrorism and conflict makes such prospects seem like an impossible dream. However, according to debkafile‘s Washington sources, administration Middle East strategists have begun thinking on those lines and even taken the first exploratory steps in this direction.
The group of NATO naval officers which landed two days before the Sharm summit in Israel’s Red Sea port of Eilat and neighboring Jordanian Aqaba to inspect naval facilities did not come out of the blue. As debkafile reported, the Israeli and Jordanian officers who received the visitors gained the impression that the plan was for NATO warships to dock in Eilat early next month.
NATO has not hitherto collaborated with the US fleet in the Red Sea and Gulf of Aqaba for fear of getting involved in the American war effort in Iraq. Certainly, this would be the first time that NATO has worked with the Israeli or Jordanian navies. Circles in the alliance suggest the expansion was prompted by al Qaeda’s bombing attacks on Sinai resorts last October, the terror group’s ongoing presence in the Egyptian peninsula, and its use of the Red Sea and Gulf of Aqaba as routes for the clandestine movement of terrorists into Sinai, from western Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Sudan. But NATO officials do not deny that their naval presence will also provide a safety umbrella for convoys with supplies destined for Iraq putting in at Aqaba.
The importance of the Sharm Four as the core of a new alliance also explains why Washington appointed an officer as senior as Lt. General William E. (Kip) Ward, deputy chief of US ground forces in Europe, as security coordinator between the United States, Israel, Egypt, Jordan and the Palestinians.
This dramatic new turn of events will be further explored in the coming
DEBKA-Net-Weekly (for subscribers) published on Friday, January, February 11.
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