Sink or swim! This was Washington’s blunt message to the four participants of the landmark summit that took place in Sharm el-Sheikh Tuesday, February 8 – Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak, Jordan’s King Abdullah, Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon and Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen).
In a bid to keep meddling Europeans and other Arab leaders away from the meeting, President George W. Bush instructed his new secretary of state, Condoleezza Rice, not to attend. Coattail hangers such as the king of Morocco, the emir of Qatar and the president of Tunisia were not invited, leaving Mubarak, Abdullah, Sharon and Abbas to hammer out a deal on their own.
(See HOT POINTS “The Middle East Club of Four is Founded in Sharm el-Sheikh”).
What did each of the four participants risk and how much did he gain from the unique experiment in regional interaction conducted at Sharm el-Sheikh?
As the host credited with arranging the meeting, the Egyptian president – with a little help from the United States and Israel – restored his country to its traditional role of senior Arab powerbroker in the Middle East. He sidelined the Arab League and consigned to history the concept of the Arab Summit as the place for decision-making in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In one fell swoop, he created a new forum at the Red Sea Sinai resort and installed a club of four as the pacesetters. To gain this eminence, Mubarak did not flinch from snubbing Saudi Arabia, which he would never have ventured only six months ago.
And, incidentally, the veteran president exploited the occasion to introduce to a world stage his son Gemal as his designated heir. This was the first time Gemal Mubarak has been part of an Egyptian delegation at an international summit. Although he sat in the last row of the meeting hall in the Movenpick Golf Hotel without uttering a word, the son and heir’s presence registered strongly over Egyptian television’s live broadcasts of the event, with the other participants, TV viewers at home and in the Arab world, and especially with the Americans monitoring from afar.
It was also Mubarak’s way of signaling that his son and successor would be bound by all the accords and obligations the father undertook at the Sharm Summit.
Anxious to glean US support not only for himself but also for Gemal, Mubarak presented everything accomplished at Sharm el-Sheikh as integral to President George W. Bush‘s vision of the spread of democracy across the Middle East.
He also echoed the US leader’s call for a viable Palestinian state alongside a secure Israel, saying the Palestinians were entitled to lasting peace in accordance with UN resolutions and the1991 Madrid conference’s land-for-peace principle.
Before Mubarak went out on this limb, no Arab ruler had ever dared utter the phrase “Bush’s vision”, a concept that evokes revulsion across the Muslim world.
Egypt’s unilateralism may well divide the Arab world against him. Saudi Arabia could decide to head up an anti-Egyptian Arab bloc. Riyadh must have resented Mubarak’s pact with the Saudi dynasty’s long-time rivals, the Hashemite rulers of Jordan for the sake of resolving the Arab world’s most aggravating dilemma for more than half a century.
It was a kick in the crown for the Saudi royal family, which views itself as the senior protector of all Arab and Islamic interests. The exclusion of Saudi princes from the Sharm summit lays them open to an embarrassing question: If they are powerless to address the Palestinian problem, how can they be expected to contend with the Iraq crisis and the terrorist menace plaguing the kingdom?
Riyadh must be feeling particularly vulnerable these days. To the east, Shiite terror-sponsoring Iran lurks and Iraqi Shiites are about to move in on government in Baghdad. To the west, too, the Americans have harnessed Egypt to sideline Saudi Arabia once again after the setbacks the kingdom suffered over the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq.
The Saudis will therefore be looking for a chance to cut Mubarak down to size.
And that is not all. Egypt, Mubarak, his family and regime, face a growing threat from Iranian-backed terrorists, al Qaeda and other radical Muslim groups.
For the first time since the establishment of the Jewish state in 1948, an Israeli prime minister sat face-to-face with three Arab leaders without a superpower or UN representative. Mubarak and Abdullah stamped Sharon’s membership card in the exclusive Israeli statesman’s club along with its sole two members – the late Menachem Begin and Yitzhak Rabin.
On the military front, although Abu Mazen’s declaration of a formal halt to the Palestinian four-and-a-half year “Intifada” was little more than empty words, it did set a legal and political precedent. From now on, the summit’s participants deem all Palestinian violent actions as terrorism pure and simple. Sharon also scored a small success simply by gaining the cooperation of Egypt and Jordan in persuading the Palestinian side to drop its unrealistic terms and deal-breaking conditions for embarking on the diplomatic track – albeit only for one day.
No sooner had Sharon touched down at home when foreign minister Silvan Shalom joined Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli leader’s strongest rival in their Likud party, in demanding the Gaza pullout planned for this summer be put to a national referendum.
Sharon’s evacuation plan was cited by all the Sharm summit leaders as the cornerstone of the new diplomatic momentum in the Middle East. At home, this plan faces mounting opposition in his own Likud and other parts of the political spectrum.
Of the four participants at the Sharm el-Sheikh summit, only Mubarak and Abdullah appeared to sit firm at the helm of their respective countries. Not so Sharon, whose minority government teeters constantly on the brink of parliamentary defeat.
While Abu Mazen’s position is even shakier – he has not yet taken charge of the Palestinian Authority, its security forces or his own Fatah faction – Sharon can probably push the Gaza withdrawal through parliament by scraping together the centrist, leftist and Arab parties. But his government is threatened by lack of support for the controversial 2005 state budget. Under Israeli law, the budget must be carried by March 31 else the government falls and an early election is called.
To convince the US president Bush and his fellow summiteers that his policies are viable, Sharon must act expeditiously to break up the opposition camp. He can do this by splitting off from Likud and establishing a new centrist political bloc or by stepping down and calling an election.
He has no more than six weeks for maneuver up until the budget deadline.
Outside Israel’s political box, disaster hangs over Sharon in the form of resumed Palestinian terrorist attacks before or after the Gaza pullout. A sudden change of leadership in Egypt, Jordan or the Palestinian Authority, or a change of heart in Cairo, Amman or Ramallah, could also bury Sharon politically.
Abdullah was the only member of the club of four who did not utter a word publicly around the summit table. Giving others pride of place, he smiled quietly as three long statements were read out in Arabic and Hebrew and broadcast live around the world.
The monarch first fell silent on the eve of the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq when he refused to discuss Jordan’s support for the American move.
According to DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s sources in Jordan, Abdullah is in the middle of a parliamentary shakeup (as we reported in our previous issue). Under his plan, the Jordanian parliament’s authority will be delegated to four regional assemblies. This could translate into strong Palestinian representation in the mini-parliaments and perhaps a majority role in one of them. Such a scenario will affect not only Jordan but also the West Bank, which was under Jordanian rule until the 1967 Middle East war.
Like the other summit participants, Abdullah does not pin high hopes on Abu Mazen and his ability to fight Palestinian terror and dismantle terrorist groups. Instability in the Palestinian Authority could eventually lead Palestinians to opt for a confederation with Jordan, thereby restoring Jordanian rule over the West Bank with an approving nod from Egypt and the Israelis.
As a senior partner at the summit, Jordan has acquired special influence over steps for determining the future of the Middle East, the second decisive role the kingdom has taken upon itself since allying with the United States over Iraq.
The Hashemite kingdom’s common borders with Iraq, Saudi Arabia and Syria, make it the most vulnerable of the four to military, economic and pan-Arab pressure from all sides. Jordan shares Egypt’s lot as target of the growing Iranian and al Qaeda threat to its regime.
MAHMOUD ABBAS – ABU MAZEN
Without any real political clout at home or a proper state to head, Abu Mazen was yet granted equal footing with Mubarak, Sharon and Abdullah at the Sharm summit. A future Palestinian state won recognition from Israel, Egypt and Jordan, and was placed on their respective political and military agendas. From now on, the only way forward for Middle East diplomacy is the road map leading to the establishment of an independent Palestinian state that will be achieved after extensive concessions and broad withdrawals are exacted from Israel.
Abbas must live with the dangerous, ever-present risk of an ouster by Palestinian terrorist groups or his own Fatah faction. One of his main problems is that despite the summit’s consent to cooperate with Israel on its Gaza pullout, none of the participants produced a formula for linking this event with the US-backed Middle East road map to peace. This enables Abu Mazen to argue that he is not bound to carry out the road map’s first requirement to dismantle terrorist infrastructure as long as Israel has not begun implementing the document either.
On the other hand, if the two parties hold back from its implementation, Israel is not obliged to execute further pullbacks. This issue is still up in the air. DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s analysts forecast more crises ahead of the new club of four as its members take their first fragile steps toward peacemaking in the post-Arafat era.
They are all beset by the Middle East axis taking shape composed of Iran, Syria and al Qaeda who were left on the sidelines of the new diplomatic move and are busily planning how to wreck it.