Analysis: Back-patting in Sharm

Olmert's pilgrimage to Mubarak illustrates some key aspects of today's Israeli-Egyptian relationship.

Olmert Mubarak 224.88 (photo credit: AP)
Olmert Mubarak 224.88
(photo credit: AP)
More than any ceremony or editorial marking 30 years since Anwar Sadat's landmark visit to Jerusalem, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's Annapolis-eve pilgrimage to Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in Sharm e-Sheikh Tuesday illustrates a few key aspects of today's Israeli-Egyptian relationship. Israel needs Egypt as a bridge to a hostile Arab world, and Mubarak uses Egypt's relationship with Israel to pump up his stature domestically, as well as his country's standing both in the Arab world and in the international community. Olmert's visit was wisely timed to precede Thursday's scheduled meeting of 12 Arab League foreign ministers in Cairo to discuss the upcoming Annapolis meeting. Bracing for tough rhetoric from the Arab League's so-called "Follow-Up Committee" to the 2002 Saudi peace plan, Olmert's visit to Mubarak was designed to publicly sign him on to the Annapolis process - and by so doing make the Arab League ministers more amenable to the whole idea. For while Egypt does not call the shots for the Arab League, its position on key matters does have a lot of impact. And Mubarak, as if on script, provided the goods, coming out at his press conference with Olmert with Egypt's most supportive statement to date of the conference. "I hope for the success of the international conference that will bring about the beginning of serious negotiations to deal with all the issues involved in a final agreement," Mubarak said. This time, Israeli officials noted, what Mubarak said in private matched completely what he said in Arabic in public - something that is not always the case. But he has conditions. Up until this point, Egypt has been lukewarm about the meeting, concerned that not all the "core" issues would be addressed and that Israel would gain important Arab legitimacy even though it did not address all the issues. Egypt has also been adamant that the process include a timeline. The Egyptian concern is that without a timeline, the Annapolis process will drag on forever without any real results, which to a large extent is the Egyptian perception of what happed with both the Camp David negotiations of the 70s and 80s and the Oslo process of the 90s. Olmert went to Sharm to ensure Mubarak that this time, things would be different. As such, he reiterated that Israel hoped to wrap up an agreement with the Palestinians by the end of 2008, and he also pledged to deal with all the sensitive issues. Olmert said he wanted it to be clear to the Arab world that he intended to negotiate on all the key issues needed to reach a two-state agreement. "We will not avoid any problem or pass over any issue that is bothering the Palestinians," he said. He added that Israel would also not let the Palestinians avoid issues essential to Israel, such as fighting terrorism. Those were both important statements that Mubarak wanted to hear from Olmert. It also never hurts Mubarak to have regional leaders beat a path to his doorstep before a major meeting to consult with him and get his blessing. This raises his stature in the eyes of his own people, as well as in the eyes of the region. Here, too, Olmert provided Mubarak with the "goods," praising him as one of the world's top leaders whose support for the Annapolis meeting already ensured its success. Meetings like the one that took place Tuesday are always well-scripted, each side knowing what it wants to get out of it in advance. On Tuesday, both sides got what they wanted. Olmert got assurances from Mubarak that he was a player in the game, as long as the game had a starting point and a defined finish line. And that without Mubarak publicly rapping Israel on the knuckles, as he has done in the past. Mubarak got assurances from Olmert that Israel wanted to come to an agreement by the end of next year, and that everything - even the most difficult issues - were now on the table. With Egypt's blessing, the door is now open for other "moderate" Arab countries to take part in the Annapolis meeting. Without Mubarak's blessing, their participation could have been in doubt.