Mubarak to Tell Bush "What is Going On" in Mideast
US President George W. Bush is hosting his first Arab leader, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, at the White House on Monday for frank discussions on some sore points between Washington and Cairo, especially regarding who is responsible for the current flare-up in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
After telling PLO chief Yasser Arafat "loud and clear" last week to "stop the violence," Bush will be soliciting Mubarak's help to press Arafat to work for calm. In addition, the Bush Administration will urge the Egyptian leader to return his ambassador to Israel, and to take his lead place in a revamped regional alignment designed to contain Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein.
But relations between the US and Egypt have been increasingly strained, ever since Mubarak backed Arafat's uncompromising stand on the issues of Jerusalem and refugees during last year's ill-fated Camp David summit. And after Palestinian violence erupted anew in September, Mubarak has sought to deflect rising anti-Israel anger in the Egyptian street by sanctioning Arafat's every move.
On the top of Mubarak's checklist is concern over growing calls in the US Congress that the US$2 billion dollar annual package of American economic and military aid to Egypt be slashed or weighted down with new restrictions. He will also be seeking US approval of a free trade agreement between the two nations.
Ahead of the visit, Mubarak conceded his talks with Bush might be less than amiable, due to discord over Arafat's reversion to armed struggle. In an interview in NEWSWEEK, Mubarak suggested, "The new [Bush] administration may not have a picture of what's going on" in the "very, very tense" Middle East. "I'm going to tell them what I feel," he confided. "Usually I have good trips to the United States. Sometimes fighting. But good fighting - without blood."
In the interview published over the weekend, Mubarak said that Arafat "can stop some [of the violence], but it is out of control." He noted that last Tuesday he told Arafat, "We are in a critical position and so are you. Today or tomorrow, you should publicly ask your people to stop violence and start negotiations. Say it on TV." He then blamed Israel for scuttling his efforts when it started "bombing" - a reference to IAF air raids on Arafat's Force 17 bodyguards.
Mubarak added he hopes to persuade Bush to get more involved in the Mideast peace process, saying, "The United States cannot just take its hands off. It has to work to narrow the gap [with] the Israelis." Mubarak is also expected to brief Bush on the results of the Arab League summit in Amman last week, which blasted Israel on numerous counts and deplored the US veto of a UN Security Council resolution to insert an observer force into Palestinian areas.
Another item up for discussion in Washington is the relentless stream of anti-Semitic articles and cartoons in the official Egyptian media. Several US congressman plan to complain to Mubarak about the issue later this week on Capitol Hill. The Anti-Defamation League has just issued a lengthy and condemning report on anti-Semitism in the Egyptian press. In addition, several Egyptian papers recently printed what many in Washington considered "racist" comments about US Secretary of State Colin Powell following his trip to the region last month.
Following close behind Mubarak is Jordan's King Abdullah II, who is due in Washington next week. Ahead of their US visits, the two "moderate" Arab leaders reportedly had their diplomatic teams draft a joint Egyptian-Jordanian formulation to restart Palestinian-Israeli negotiations. The proposal called for the European Union, the UN Security Council, Jordan and Egypt to supervise the renewed peace process, which would have picked up where final-status talks left off at Taba in late January - a position Israel and the US have already rejected. Though never formally presented to Israel, Foreign Minister Shimon Peres said Jerusalem would have rejected the plan had it been tabled.
The proposal, which Peres called a "non-paper," also called upon both sides to take steps to reduce the violence; for Israel to lift its "military and economic" siege of Palestinian areas; for the IDF to withdraw to positions it held before the outbreak of the violence in September; and for Israel to transfer revenues it has held up to the PA. Israeli officials do not view the document as serious, merely something "productive" for Mubarak and Abdullah to present to Bush in their respective audiences at the White House.
Meanwhile, Peres departed Sunday for a four-day working visit to Europe, including stops in Sweden, Norway, France and Greece. He met in Stockholm today with Anna Lindh, his counterpart from Sweden, which currently hold the rotating presidency of the European Union. Upon arrival, he was confronted by a small group of demonstrators shouting "Peres murderer."
As Peres departed Jerusalem, there was lingering dissension within the Foreign Ministry over how to portray Arafat in the Israeli government's new public relations campaign abroad. Prime Minister Ariel Sharon called Arafat a "leader of terror" last week, and some foreign ministry officials want the campaign to contain material implicating the PLO chief in the on-going violence. But Peres refuses to endorse any personal attacks against Arafat and other senior Palestinian Authority figures. Yesterday, he defended Arafat as an elected leader and future negotiating partner with Israel.
For his part, Arafat is anxious to firm up an appointment in Damascus with Syrian dictator Hafez al-Assad tentatively set for mid-April, as a follow-up to their encounter at the pan-Arab summit in Amman. During last week's meeting, the two leaders reportedly agreed to renew relations on the way towards possibly coordinating diplomatic moves against Israel. There are some reports that further suggest the two are engaged in planning some sort of anti-Israel military strategy along with Iraq, Iran and Hizb'Allah.
In Ramallah today, Arafat welcomed Labor party MK Yossi Katz, who defied warnings from Israeli security about entering areas under PA rule. "I felt that it was my public duty to go to the meeting in order to work towards ending the violence and bloodshed," Katz said. "I reached the decision that canceling the meeting would be an affront to Arafat." Katz said Arafat expressed his commitment to the peace process and stressed the economic hardship on Palestinians caused by Israeli closures.
Used with Permission from International Christian Embassy Jerusalem.