Arab, Israeli Self-Interest at Cairo Economic Summit Furthers Peace Process

Article excerpt

Alan Makovsky, a fellow with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, analyzes the Cairo economic summit in "Peace Watch", the organization's special report on the Arab-Israeli peace process.

With the dust clearing on the public relations "spin" suggested by Arab, Israeli and American observers of the Middle East/North Africa Economic Conference held in Cairo [in mid-November], a detached assessment of that now-annual event would underscore the surprising durability of new regional institutions at times of political anxiety.

Even while punctuating Arab world unhappiness with current Israeli policies and lacking the heady euphoria of its predecessors in Casablanca and Amman, the Cairo conference nevertheless generated at least as much actual business activity - including contact between Israeli and Arab businessmen - as the earlier sessions and showed that even if the pace of Israel's normalization in the Middle East is slowed by difficulties in the peace process, the direction remains clear.

NORMALIZATION CONTINUES

Taking place amidst stalemate in the peace process, expectations for the Cairo conference were low; on the eve of the conference, it did not seem a far-fetched possibility that Cairo would become a symbol of regional acrimony as much as the summits in Casablanca [1994] and Amman [1995] had been symbols of growing regional amity.

Indeed, most of the Cairo speakers warned that regional economic cooperation could not go forward without political progress. Even Secretary of State [Warren] Christopher, a prime mover in developing the idea of regional economic conferences, toned down his remarks for the occasion, dropping his visionary depiction of future regional cooperation as well as his direct call for an end to the Arab boycott that highlightedd his speeches in Morocco and Jordan.

That the conference was held despite the current political climate, however, established a new base line for the normalization process and tentatively suggested that the annual regional conference has become a permanent part of the Middle East landscape. The final communique also affirmed ongoing progress in creating other regionwide institutions, such as a Cairo-based regional development bank and a Tunis-based center for regional cooperation on promoting tourism.

APPEAL TO ARAB INTEREST

The most visible effect produced by the problems in the peace process was the de-emphasis of regional investment schemes in favor of greater emphasis on single-country deals. Previous meetings had emphasized regional cooperation and implicitly put primacy on projects that would hasten Israel's integration into the region.

This time each country emphasized its own virtues as a place to invest. President [Hosni] Mubarak, the conference host, used his platform primarily to promote Egypt's assets, particularly the impressive gains made by its economic reform program. Egypt and other Arab states emphasized that the conference was for their own benefit, not Israel's.

But that is not all bad - indeed, is probably healthy - even if this approach meant a frostier Arab-Israeli atmosphere, at least at the official level, than in past meetings.

In part, the Arab approach was a rationalization for going through with a diplomatic exercise strongly urged on them by the U.S. But it was also an honest statement of perceived material self-interest that bodes well for future meetings. It is noteworthy that the final communique unequivocally confirmed that the participants had decided to meet again next year, in Doha, Qatar.

A SETBACK FOR SYRIA

The very convening of the Cairo conference, with its ministerial representation by most Arab states, was a direct rebuff to Syria's campaign to freeze Arab normalization with Israel, again demonstrating the limits of Syria's real influence in affecting decisions that other Arab capitals perceive to be in their national interest. …