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GETTING SERIOUS IN NEW MIDDLE EAST

Arafat’s Death May Pave The Way To Israeli Rapprochement With Palestinians and Egypt

The Way To Baghdad May Lead Through Jerusalem and Gaza

Sharon Gains Netanyahu’s Backing For Bringing Labor Into Coalition And Possibly Paving The Way To Gaza Withdrawal

Mubarak and Assad

Throughout the region, the talk today is about the prospect the Middle East may be on the brink of compromise and peace, instead of embroiled in bloodshed and terrorism. The flurry of optimism has been triggered by Egypt’s dramatic release of the Israeli Druze citizen Azam Azam. But there are other moves afoot and David Essing has this analysis of why and where things may be headed.

Azam Azam

Azam Azam, an Israeli Druze Arab, an Israeli textile manufacturer was arrested, convicted and served half of his sixteen year sentence for espionage in Egypt. He was convicted of sending coded information by invisible ink written on women’s underwear from Egypt to Israel. In a highly unusual development, Israeli Prime Ministers and a Mossad Director gave their word that Azam Azam was not an Israeli spy: but to no avail. Moreover, Egypt recalled its ambassador years ago. Question#1 - Is it conceivable the Mossad would send an Israeli Druze on an espionage mission to Egypt where he would obviously be under surveillance from the word go? Possible, but highly improbable.Question#2 - What secret information could an underwear manufacturer have possibly garnered for the Mossad?So, why did the Egyptians decide to lower the boom on Azam Azam? There are different versions. One is the Egyptians wanted to send a message to Israel’s Druze Community. The Druze, Arabic speaking with a secretative offshoot religion from Islam, serve in combat units of the Israel Defense Forces. Or maybe his incarceration was a signal of Egypt’s displeasure with Israel over the breakdown of the Oslo process and the last four years of intifada. If the whole Azam Azam affair was political, so then is his release. Apparently one reason for the change of heart by President Mubarak is that he now believes Prime Minister Sharon is on the level about the Gaza withdrawal. Mubarak has just said so and publicly. Egypt then is now on board even ready to play a role in sending Egyptian Border Guards to stem the flow of explosives and weapons being smuggled from Egyptian controlled Sinai into Gaza. Moreover, the Egyptians are also training a Palestinian security force which will try and rein in the terrorists. Also in the pipe line: bilateral trade agreements and the return of an Egyptian ambassador. But what has made such moves possible is the departure of Yasser Arafat. Arafat’s role of ‘spoiler’ in the region cannot be overestimated. While Arafat praised Shahied suicide bombers, new leaders like Muhmoud Abbas and Ahmed Queira, are now telling the Palestinian people that terrorism doesn’t pay. For the first time, a real Palestinian peace partner may be emerging and Sharon and other Israeli leaders are saying ‘Give peace a chance’. If Sharon had declared a unilateral evacuation from Gaza, because there was no serious Palestinian partner, he’s now ready for co-ordination.The other side of the triangle is the re-election of U.S. President George W. Bush and his pledge to give priority to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. If Arab leaders and Britain’s Tony Blair are saying the road to a solution in Baghdad leads through Jerusalem and Ramallah, Bush now concurs. All these developments have a spin-off effect throughout the region. Arab countries, which warmed up to Israel after Oslo and then turned a cold shoulder, are now following Egypt’s lead. Look for developments all the way from Morocco to some of the Gulf states.Now is the time to get serious, that’s the message written on the wall throughout the Middle East. Bush is, Sharon is, and the Palestinian leaders say they want to be. And if the road to Baghdad leads through Jerusalem and Gaza, regional leaders, who are faced with the threat of radical Islam in their own backyards, may be thinking twice about now getting on the stability bandwagon. Political and economic instability is one of the breeding grounds of radical Islam.Even Syrian President Bashar Assad has seen the light. Under pressure from the U.S. over Iraq and the U.N. on Lebanon, Assad has turned to Israel for his escape hatch. However, Sharon and other government leaders say Assad has ‘yet to pay his dues’. It’s not enough for Syria to agree to return to peace talks; Israeli officials are demanding a halt to Syria’s support for both Palestinian terrorism based in Damascus and the Hizballah threat deployed in south Lebanon.

To close the circle, Israeli officials see President Mubarak’s release of Azam Azam not only as a personal gesture to Prime Minister Sharon but also as a signal to the Arab world. It could not have come at a better time for the Prime Minister - just before the crucial vote by the Likud convention on Sharon’s proposal to bring Labor into a new government coalition. Without Labor, Sharon will probably not be able to implement the Gaza withdrawal and that would bring the current move to a new Middle East to a screeching halt.Footnote - On Tuesday, December 07, Finance Minister Bibi Netanyahu informed Sharon he will support Labor’s inclusion. This will: 1. Apparently guarantee a Likud convention vote in favor of Labor joining the coalition. 2. Indicate that Netanyahu will probably not challenge Sharon for the Likud party leadership in the foreseeable future.

There is an inverse symmetry between Yasser Arafat and Ariel Sharon. Arafat not only poisoned relations between Palestinians and Israelis but also through the entire region. In Israel, the whole process of withdrawal and compromise now weighs on the shoulders of one leader, Ariel Sharon. The common wisdom is that only Sharon will be able to pull it off.

David Essing

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