Mubarak Stresses Egypt's Peace Role in the Arab World

07/22/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • Firas Al-Atraqchi Assoc. Professor of Practice in Journalism at American University in Cairo

In a commentary piece published in The Wall Street Journal on June 19, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak positioned himself - and Egypt's diplomatic initiatives - at the head of the Arab camp's efforts to bring peace to the region.

By reiterating Egyptian diplomatic proposals - which form the cornerstones of the 2002/2009 Saudi-sponsored Arab Peace Initiative - Mubarak is critically challenging Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu's pitiful peace overtures and also responding to US President Barack Obama's recent speech in Cairo.

Obama reached out not only to the Muslim World but also to Israelis and Arabs urging them to take bold steps to bring the 61-year conflict to a peaceful end. In a move that has worried many hard-line Israelis and members of Christian Zionist organizations, Obama called on Israel to halt settlement expansion as a precursor to negotiations and a just peace.

Israel's rightwing supporters in Congress accused Obama of "selling out" to Arab terrorists; their counterparts in the Israeli settler movement photoshopped a Palestinian keffiyeh atop Obama's head and highlighted his middle name Hussein as an indication of his terrorist roots - and leanings.

However, their Islamophobic propaganda cannot undo the fact that the Obama administration is prepared to adopt a more committed agenda in the Middle East - by pushing the Israelis on one track and using a more balanced tone in dealing with Iran.

Realizing that the momentum was not in his government's favor, Netanyahu outlined concessions he was prepared to make. However, his recent speech was more about Iran and less about creating a Palestinian state; in fact, the concessions were nothing more than severely restrictive measures to limit Palestinian sovereignty.

Nevertheless, many Washington insiders and media pundits applauded Netanyahu's "historic" and unprecedented pledges.

Seasoned Egyptian negotiators, however, found Netanyahu's speech to be a dismal non-sequitur.

In this regard, then, Mubarak's speech could not have been more timely.

The Arab House is itself in a state of disarray, and according to some, in disrepair. The brutal Israeli aggression on Gaza (which incidentally helped pave the far rightwing victory in the Knesset) exacerbated intra-Arab disagreements recently exposed during the Israeli war on Lebanon in 2006 and divided the Arab League into two camps.

Pertinent issues such as the plight of the Palestinians (particularly in besieged Gaza), the dire lack of progress in the peace process, the nearly insurmountable obstacles to demarcating a viable Palestinian state because of Israeli expansionism, and Jewish settler violence seem to have been lost amid Arab bickering and the public harangues traded between Tehran and Tel Aviv.

Mubarak's commentary counters repeated disinformation campaigns fanatically maintained by Israeli and American rightwing pundits which claim that "the Arabs want to push Israel into the sea." Netanyahu and other leaders continue to use Hamas' charter as evidence that the 22-member Arab League reject normalization of relations with Israel.

"For the first time in the history of the conflict, the Arab states unanimously committed to full normalization and security for Israel in exchange for a full withdrawal to the 1967 lines and a negotiated resolution of the Palestinian refugee issue," Mubarak writes.

Mubarak's commentary is a reminder for the US and Europe that there remains a functioning Arab proposal on the table for the Israelis to accept. It stresses the importance of withdrawing to the 1967 borders and enforcing UN resolutions 242 and 338, which Israel has violated for 42 years. It also promises the Israelis full Arab recognition (as stipulated in the Arab Peace Initiative, which he directly references) and diplomatic ties in exchange for withdrawal - in effect, the land-for-peace approach.

However, the commentary also serves to remind the Arabs that Egypt has for years led negotiations to secure an Israeli-Palestinian settlement and played a key role in Madrid, Oslo, the Wye River Accords, and Annapolis and in recent years a series of summits in the Egyptian Red Sea resort of Sharm el Sheikh. In a not so subtle nudge, the Egyptian president is reminding other Arab states not to isolate or outmaneuver his country's diplomatic initiatives, which he believes are central to any future peace deal.

He may be right. As a frontline state, Egypt has lost tens of thousands of soldiers and civilians in numerous military engagements (and wars of attrition) with Israel in 1948, 1956, 1967 and 1973. And it was Egyptian diplomats who engaged in intense negotiations with their Israeli counterparts ahead of the Egypt-Israel Peace Treaty, which on March 26 marked its 30th anniversary.

Egypt's bold initiatives with Israel in 1978-1979 earned it rebuke and isolation from Arabs furious that then Egyptian President Anwar Sadat could even shake hands with the "Zionists." Within a decade, and as Israel began to return the Sinai Peninsula, Egypt's position - at least as far as its own strategic aims were concerned - was vindicated.

Arabs states now openly engage Israel at international conferences and no longer refer to it as the Zionist entity.

It remains to be seen how the Israeli government, and other Arab states, respond to Mubarak's Wall Street Journal commentary.