Getting the Moderates Together : Palestinian Muslim extremism triggers an extraordinary Cairo conference

The extraordinary meeting of Middle East leaders in Cairo a few days ago may not have moved the arduous effort to achieve peace in that conflict-weary region appreciably closer, but at least it seems to have headed off an early breakdown in the process, a prospect that in recent weeks has grown ominously larger.

In little more than five hours of discussions the conferees reached agreement for a series of bilateral and multilateral meetings between Israel and Egypt, Jordan and the Palestinian Authority. These are to be held over the next few weeks. The most critical of them will be between Israelis and Palestinians.

Anti-Israel terrorism by Palestinian Muslim extremists, foot-dragging by Israel on the promised redeployment of its army on the West Bank and on local Palestinian elections and the inability of Yasser Arafat's provisional regime to show that it can function effectively as a responsible civil authority in the Gaza Strip have severely eroded popular support for the peace process. In Israel and among the Palestinians, the rhetoric of anger, frustration, hatred and suspicion grows in volume, threatening to drown out the calmer counsels of those who believe there simply is no acceptable alternative to continued good-faith negotiations.

The Cairo summit, bringing together Arafat, Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin of Israel, Jordan's King Hussein and President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt at least served to remind the Israeli and Palestinian leaders of the great stakes that are involved in their efforts. A collapse of the U.S.-sponsored talks between Israel and the Palestinians, even their indefinite suspension, would immeasurably boost the political fortunes of those--Palestinians and Israelis alike--who believe and proclaim that the other side simply can't be trusted, that territorial and political compromise is both unachievable and undesirable, that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a zero-sum game from which only one winner can emerge.

Whatever may divide them, all four of the leaders at the Cairo regional summit share the experience of having a common enemy in the various Muslim radical groups that threaten the stability each seeks.

Egypt has suffered grievously at the hands of its militants, as revenues from its tourist industry have all but dried up. Jordan keeps a wary eye on its domestic fundamentalists and what they might attempt should Hussein, his health uncertain, pass from the scene. Arafat knows that if he fails he almost certainly would be replaced by Muslim radicals. And Israelis don't have to be reminded of the unyielding enmity those same radicals hold for their country. This common threat by itself provides a powerful incentive for not letting the peace effort fail.

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