Egypt applies gentle pressure to Netanyahu

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The Independent Online
Benjamin Netanyahu will visit Egypt today, his first trip to an Arab country as Israeli Prime Minister. But he will not be allowed by the Egyptian government to visit the Pyramids or look at the gold coffin of Tutankhamun in Cairo. It is the sort of small gesture by which the Arab world is trying to edge Mr Netanyahu towards implementing the peace accords with the Palestinians.

"Israel cannot say and do whatever it likes, because it made a contract at the [1991] Madrid conference," said Osama el-Baz, senior adviser to President Mubarak. "It also accepted the principle of land for peace and the legitimate political rights of the Palestinian people."

In a flurry of diplomatic activity, Mr Netanyahu met Abdul-Karim Kabariti, the Jordanian Prime Minister, on Tuesday night, at the request of Jordan. Mr Kabariti said: "I sense that there is a sincere commitment from Prime Minister Netanyahu when it comes to making peace." He did not, however, spell out the nature of that commitment.

The Arab world is still in a state of shock over Mr Netanyahu's visit to the US last week, and the applause that greeted his hard line in the Congress. Not only did he repeat his rejection of a Palestinian state, negotiations on Jerusalem and the return of the Golan to Syria, but he gave the impression that he would expand Jewish settlements on the West Bank.

Since he signed a peace treaty with Israel in 1994, King Hussein had been committed to acting as a bridge between Israel and the Arab world. With the election of Mr Netanyahu, this operation becomes more delicate. "This year will be a difficult one for Jordan," said a senior diplomat. "You can hear people more and more openly criticising the King - at levels like ministers, where people are supposed to bow."

Probably Mr Netanyahu does not need to do much to prevent an overt rift with Egypt, which remains very dependent on the US. If he announces the long-awaited partial Israeli withdrawal from Hebron in the next month, this will be taken as a sign that the Oslo accords are still live. Yasser Arafat, the Palestinian leader, is continuing co-operation with Israel in the belief that this is his best lever in dealing with Mr Netanyahu.

Mr Arafat could have chosen another policy. Dr Khalil Shikaki, of the Centre for Palestine Research and Studies, says a better strategy for the Palestinian Authority might be to provoke an immediate crisis "by halting all security co- operation with Israel and releasing all Hamas prisoners". This could be supplemented by mass demonstrations by Palestinians and highlighting of Palestinian military and political control of parts of the West Bank. Dr Shikaki argues that Mr Netanyahu's record shows that he backs down under pressure.

It is unlikely that Mr Arafat will adopt this strategy. Under his leadership, the PLO has never been effective in leading a mass movement. The Palestinian intifada in 1987 was largely spontaneous. Mr Netanyahu has so far refused to meet the Palestinian leader and Khalid Salam, one of his advisers, said yesterday that a lower level meeting had "not been positive". David Levy, the Israeli Foreign Minister,expects to meet Mr Arafat soon.

There may be less mystery about Mr Netanyahu's tactics than appears. In his books, he says that his experience as Israeli ambassador at the UN convinced him that the way to deal with the Arabs is for Israel to take up a hardline position and wait for them to compromise. He may feel that nothing that has happened since his election contradicts this premise.