CAIRO — One of the most encouraging features of the various peace initiatives being discussed in the Middle East is that no one is threatening to go to war if they fail, as they probably will.
This may hardly seem like progress, but in an area in which rhetoric tends to be more important than substance or action, it is easy to forget that, from a historical perspective, recent shifts in the Middle East have been dramatic.
It was, after all, less than two decades ago that Arab leaders met in Khartoum after their humiliating defeat by Israel in the 1967 war to adopt a regional platform of negativism: no peace, no negotiation, no recognition.
And it was only six years ago that Anwar Sadat, the late president of Egypt, made peace with Israel--a move that changed, perhaps for years to come, the focus of the Arab-Israeli conflict, shifting it from the battlefield to the negotiating table. However diluted the spirit of Camp David has become, it led to the placing of a foundation stone for peace.
Since then two of the hard-line rejectionist states, Algeria and Iraq, have moved into the community of Egyptian-led moderates, leaving only Libya, Syria and South Yemen to plot, rhetorically, the dismemberment of Israel. Of the three, only Syria represents a political or military force to be taken seriously.
The Arabs conclude from all this that it is they, not Israel, who have changed and become more flexible.
Hermann F. Eilts, director of Boston University's Center of International Relations and the U.S. ambassador to Egypt from 1965 to 1970, said not long ago: "Clearly there are exceptions, but I have sensed for some time an Arab willingness to generally accept Israel, and I think you can even include Syria. What we are seeing now is that the Arab states are coming back to Egypt, and Egypt in its own way is resuming a leadership role. At the same time, Egypt is not having to pay the price of jettisoning the peace treaty, and that is encouraging."
The reason for this shift, primarily, is the Arabs' realization that after four wars they are still losing ground to Israel. The Palestinians' plight is not of great concern anymore to Arab governments, except Jordan and Egypt; the West Bank appears to be under permanent Israeli occupation; the Arab League has become paralyzed and irrelevant; divisions within the Arab world remain as pronounced as ever.
As President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt asked Wednesday at a joint press conference with King Hussein of Jordan: "From '48 to today, what have we achieved?" The implied answer was nothing.
Although American diplomats see in recent events cause for mild optimism, no one is suggesting that peace is at hand--or even in sight. Israel and the Arabs remain preoccupied with building their armies. The United States seems to have lost its ability (or its willingness) to influence regional friends or foes. One senses in this era of no-war, no-peace a general weariness bordering on exhaustion, which could be dangerous if another right-wing government comes to power in Israel, or if the gesture of moderate Arabs for a settlement based on dialogue collapses.
This is Mubarak's point. In his press conference with Hussein he repeatedly emphasized the need for dialogue. At least half a dozen times he used the words logical, practical and realistic to describe the approach that participants should take in seeking a settlement. His proposals include direct negotiations between Israel and the Arabs--a suggestion that would have been considered heretical just a few years ago.
Predictably, in a region in which caution counts for more than innovation does, the Arabs have greeted Mubarak's proposals with general silence. They are willing to let Egypt take the risks as long as they stand to share in any successes, but not the failures, of the one country that is not afraid to exercise leadership.
But there is every reason to believe that much of the Arab world is ready to deal if it feels that it will get something in return. To deny those who have softened their tone is to strengthen those who remain inflexible, and one hopes that Washington is ready to encourage the Arab shift toward moderation with more than words.