HAS the West Asia peace process collapsed with the advent of the right-wing Likud government in Israel? The answer depends on who you ask. While Palestinian National Authority (PNA) officials are deeply concerned now that the declared opponents of the Oslo agreement are in power in Israel, Jordan's King Hussein expressed optimism about the future of the peace process immediately after the election of the new Israeli Prime Minister, Benyamin Netanyahu. And, after a closed-door meeting with Net-anyahu at his Cairo palace, Egyptian President Hosni Mub arak echoed Hussain's view.
An alarmed PNA chief, Yasser Arafat, rushed to Egypt after Netanyahu left. In a statement later, he stressed that it remained to be seen whether Israel would observe its obligations to the peace process.
These opposing views—the sceptical Palestinians and the optimistic Hussein and Muba-rak—stem from differing expectations from the peace process. The Palestinians want an independent state with East Jerusalem as their capital. But Jordan feels that a strong Palestinian state in the West Bank could threaten its own stability, given the fact that the PNA has failed to establish friendly relations with the Hashemite kingdom and that most Jordanians are of Palestinian origin. The warm relations that former Israeli prime minister Shimon Peres developed with Arafat were viewed with concern by Jordan, whose support to the Oslo peace process was half-hearted to begin with.
Arafat's great ally in all this was Mubarak. Cairo, not Amman, is the pivot of Palestinian political activity. Arafat needs Mubarak to back him against Jordan's aspirations in the West Bank, while Mubarak needs Arafat to bolster Egypt's image as a leading Arab nation. The basic pattern of the equation—Hussein-Netanyahu versus Arafat-Mubarak-Peres—developed instantly after the Israeli elections. But after the Netanyahu-Mubarak meeting, Egypt seems to have tilted towards the Netanyahu-Hussein axis.
Jordan played a key role in setting up the Cairo meeting. Jordanian Prime Minister Abd a-Salam al-Kabariti delivered a message from Mubarak to Netanyahu just hours before the latter left for Cairo. Kabariti knew that a failure could result in severe deterioration of Egypt-Jordan ties, with Cairo blaming Amman of exploiting its special relations with Israel to subvert Egypt's leading role in West Asia.
Mubarak, who has been seeking a dominant role in West Asia for Egypt, appears to have been reassured by Netanyahu that Israel would not do anything to jeopardise this. In contrast, Peres wanted Israel to play a leading economic role in West Asia.
For Egypt, to make peace with the Jewish State is one thing, to surrender its historical role is something else. Jordan under-stood this sensitive issue better than Israel, and helped Netanyahu understand it.
The tete-a-tete in Cairo also gave Mubarak a chance to solicit Netanyahu's views on Israel's nuclear policy and, more specifically, on the conditions under which Israel would be willing to sign the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. Peres was an orthodox adherent of Israel keeping its nuclear hegemony intact. While details of the Mubarak-Netanyahu meeting are not known, it is likely that the latter agreed to put his nuclear options on the negotiating table if all West Asian countries, including Iran and Syria, made peace with Israel and stopped terrorism. Perhaps this is the secret behind the timing of the latest exchange of prisoners between Israel and Hizbullah.
But while the Palestinians may have felt deserted by their fellow Arabs, the US rallied behind Arafat. The American Consul General came especially to Nablus to meet Arafat, promising him aid for the Palestinian water system. During his recent visit to Washington, Netanyahu had asserted that the continuation of the peace process was tied to the Palestinians keeping their part of the bargain. He said the PNA had blatantly violated the accord by setting up branch offices in Jerusalem and that the Palestinian security had even arrested people there. Clinton, who had openly supported Netanyahu's rival Peres during the recent elections, stoically stressed that there was no going back on the Oslo agreements.
A long list of what the Palestinians expect from Israel was submitted to the government in June. Apart from resolving the issue of Israeli settlers, they want the immediate implementation of the unfulfilled parts of the Oslo agreement, like the removal of troops from the Palestinian areas of Hebron and the inauguration of a 'safe passage' from Gaza to the West Bank.
Arafat, after having snubbed Netanyahu by refusing to meet his special envoy recently, later adopted a conciliatory tone by agreeing to meet Israeli Foreign Minister David Levy on July 23. But nothing concrete came of it, and Arafat had to be content with having met a government representative for the first time. The Oslo agreement had opened the doors wide to Israel. Failure to fulfill expectations may shut them again.