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Middle Eastern affairs: Exodus part II

WASHINGTON — Washington -- AS MIDDLE Eastern shouting matches go, the one last weekend at Blair House, the residence across from the )) White House, between Egyptian Foreign Minister Amr Moussa and Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres was probably in the top 10, said one observer.

While their host, Secretary of State Warren Christopher, watched in pain, Messrs. Moussa and Peres ripped each other apart. Mr. Moussa told Mr. Peres that Israel had started the 1967 war, fulminated that Israel, with its nuclear weapons, still wanted to dominate the Middle East, and insisted that Israel was entitled to "normal" relations with Egypt, not a "special relationship."

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Mr. Peres lashed back that Egypt was trying to "destroy" the peace process, and with a voice rising in anger told Mr. Moussa that before Egypt got the whole Arab world riled up about inspecting Israel's nuclear facilities, Cairo should inspect Iran's.

The hapless Russian observer at the session, Victor Posuvalyuk, listened to the shouting and said: "I thought relations between you two were more amiable."

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Well, Victor, think again. There is a new rivalry for leadership of the Middle East, and it's between Egypt and Israel. Yes, 3,000 years after the Exodus, the offspring of Pharaoh and Moses are at it again.

Ever since Egypt signed its peace treaty with Israel in 1979, Egypt has worked to get more Arab states to make peace with Israel, primarily to ease Cairo's isolation in the Arab world for having been the first to walk the walk with the Jews.

Over time, though, Egypt discovered that its treaty with Israel was actually a source of status and money. Egypt became the interpreter and mediator between Israel and the other Arabs, and it became the Arab address through which the United States conducted its peace diplomacy.

And then came the handshake. Israel started dealing directly with Yasser Arafat. Israel signed a treaty with Jordan without either country consulting Egypt (which drove the Egyptians crazy). And lately Israel has been forging economic ties with the likes of Oman, Bahrain, Morocco and Tunisia without anyone dialing Cairo.

The Egyptians aren't amused. They know that an Israel at peace with the Arab world is actually more powerful than Egypt. It has more to offer technologically, it has better entree with the United States and, because Israel's economy is bigger than Egypt's, Syria's, Jordan's and Lebanon's combined, it will dominate any Middle East common market.

So Egypt struck back. It initiated an Arab crusade to pressure Israel to sign the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, which meant Israel either had to reveal its bombs in the basement or risk alienation from its new neighbors. Then the Egyptians put together a summit in Alexandria, with Syria and Saudi Arabia, where they flashed a yellow light to other Arab states thinking about normalizing relations with Israel.

After Israeli and U.S. complaints, the Egyptians hastily arranged a kiss-and-make-up summit in Cairo with Jordan, Israel and the ++ PLO, and then attended the Blair House session. But these were just 20-second timeouts, where the Egyptians and Israelis made nice for the cameras.

Egypt today is going through an identity crisis. It had hoped that peace would shrink Israel to its natural size. Instead, peace has made Israel larger -- by giving it diplomatic and economic opportunities in Asia and the Arab world that are making Jerusalem, not Cairo, the region's center of gravity.

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But peace is making Egypt smaller than its natural size, because it is no longer inflated by its diplomatic role and must now compete with Israel and other Arabs as a real country.

Egypt has a choice: It can try to reassert its leadership by spoiling everything it helped to build. Or it can recognize that Egypt remains special, in its standing with the United States, the Arab world and Israel -- but just not as special as before -- and learn to live with a medium-sized diplomatic ego, instead of extra large.

Egypt today cannot afford the Nasser model, where it leads by fighting the West, and it cannot sustain the Sadat model, where it leads by bridging to the West. It will have to find a new model for a new era.

I don't know where Egypt's search for identity will lead, but I do know that the identity of the Middle East and the peace process will be heavily influenced by where it ends.

Thomas Friedman is a columnist for the New York Times.


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