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Dinner in Cairo

The Middle East summit in Cairo Thursday was as splendid in symbolism as it was meager in substance. It would be hard to say which is more important.

In one sense, this was the first Middle East summit ever. That is, the first in which Israel's prime minister sat down with his regional counterparts, not just one-on-one; the first in which the others congregated as Middle East rather than exclusively Arab leaders.

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It began with the prime minister of Israel, the president of Egypt, the king of Jordan and the head of the Palestinian authority sitting down for the festive meal ending the daytime fast during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, a traditional hour of sharing with family and close friends.

From Egypt's perspective, the summit which President Hosni Mubarak called and hosted put Egypt back in the position of leadership in the region where Egyptians think it belongs, and which is vital to its case for aid. In the past couple of years, Egypt seemed to have lost this position as first the PLO and then Jordan made separate peace with Israel without Egyptian assistance.

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What the summit did not do was compel PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat to take more vigorous action to curtail terrorism against Israel by his opponents among Palestinians, or compel Israel to keep its timetable for troop redeployment and Palestinian elections, open its nuclear facilities to inspection or halt settlement enlargement in the West Bank near Jerusalem. The Cairo summit also failed to engage Syria, conspicuous by President Hafez el Assad's absence, in the reassuring language of the communique.

The primary need is to find a way to reverse the dynamic of extremist terrorism, Israeli response and Palestinian ambiguity that makes both Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Mr. Arafat cater more to the hawks and doubters among their own supporters at home than to the insecurities of the other's side.

That was not accomplished in a few hours and remains an elusive though necessary goal. But the Middle East summit did, in the way of substance, establish an ambitious timetable of talks on specific problems among the parties that may yet move events constructively. That was as much, or more, than was expected. They are getting on with it and not quitting.

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