Egypt hopes for a bigger role

IN TERMS of symbols, today's meeting in Egypt between President Hosni Mubarak and the Israeli Prime Minister, Yitzhak Rabin, has much to offer. It is the first summit meeting between heads of government of the two states for six years - even though Egypt is the only Arab country to have signed a peace treaty with Israel.

For over six years Mr Mubarak indulged an aversion to Mr Rabin's predecessor, Yitzhak Shamir. He refused to meet him. The stated reason was Egypt's assumption that such a meeting would not push forward the search for a comprehensive settlement in the region.

Mr Mubarak's willingness to meet Mr Rabin now suggests that Egypt is confident such a meeting will help the peace process. This in itself raises hopes that there might be some immediate outcome today. This could be some repeated assurance to Israel that it would try to get the Arab trade boycott of Israel relaxed or lifted.

Egypt has mixed feelings about Mr Rabin. It was not happy about the way in which as defence minister he cracked down on the Palestinian uprising in the occupied West Bank and Gaza strip. Yet Mr Mubarak did receive Mr Rabin in this capacity three years ago. For both are military men, with distinguished careers. Mr Rabin laid the ground for Israel's 1967 war victory, seizing from Syria the Golan Heights, from Jordan control of the West Bank, and from Egypt the Sinai peninsula, including the Gaza Strip.

Mr Mubarak, as air force chief, provided the air cover for Egyptian ground forces in their assault across the Suez Canal in 1973.

Egypt welcomed Mr Rabin's electoral victory primarily as a change from Mr Shamir. Mr Rabin has always been known as a man with an almost neurotic attention to detail, rather than a leader with a grand vision of his country's future. Yet so far, he has made the right sounds. He has called for a new approach to Israel's neighbours. He has ordered a freeze of further settlement activity. How much, and how far are less important than the fact that he is seeking to arrest, and maybe reverse a trend. That in itself is a measure designed to induce confidence in the Arab side that he is serious.

For its part, Egypt would like a larger role. Yet as it has had a peace treaty with Israel since 1979, its role is at best minor. Egypt, however, will gain some clearer idea of the commitment in substance of the new Israeli government to the search for a real settlement in the region, both with the Arab states (Syria, Jordan) and with the Palestinians.

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