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Just what does it mean to 'fully normalize' relations?

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By SUSAN TAYLOR MARTIN, Times Senior Correspondent

© St. Petersburg Times
published March 17, 2002


Desperate for a way out of the Israeli-Palestinian quagmire, many world leaders are embracing a Saudi Arabian peace plan as eagerly as parched desert travelers grabbing for Gatorade.

Here's the idea they find so exciting: The Arab world would "fully normalize" relations with Israel -- including security guarantees and diplomatic ties -- if Israel recognizes a Palestinian state and withdraws from the territories it has occupied since 1967.

Critics say little new is in the plan, and even the Saudis seem to have backed down a bit since Crown Prince Abdullah broached it last month. So bleak is the situation in the Middle East, however, that the idea is drawing serious attention.

But what would "fully normalizing" relations mean? For an answer -- and one that's not too encouraging -- look no farther than the two Arab countries that have peace agreements with Israel.

The Jewish state signed a treaty with Egypt in 1979 and with Jordan in 1994. Yet what exists between Israel and its Arab neighbors can be described, at best, as a "cold peace." Although they have avoided war, the three countries have yet to realize many other advantages -- cultural, political and economic -- that were so grandly predicted.

Among the few obvious results of the peace agreements has been regular airline service between Tel Aviv, Cairo and Amman. Israel and Jordan have ambassadors in each other's capital; Egypt yanked its ambassador out of Tel Aviv after the start of the second Palestinian uprising in 2000 and has yet to replace him.

Relations between the two countries began on a more promising note in 1979, when Israel started withdrawing from territory it captured in Egypt's Sinai Peninsula. Showing there is ample precedent for moving Jewish settlers out of occupied areas, Israel evicted hundreds of residents from a Jewish settlement in the Sinai in 1982 and bulldozed the town.

(The settlers didn't suffer too much: Each got an average of $50,000 with which they were able to buy spacious homes in Israel.)

But Israel refused to give up Taba, a hotel and half-mile stretch of beach popular with Israeli tourists. The case went to arbitration and was settled in favor of Egypt, which later paid $37-million for the hotel.

That formed the basis for what is the booming Red Sea dive resort of Sharm El Sheik. Before the latest Mideast violence, it drew as many as 400,000 Israelis a year.

Egypt also has benefitted from Israel's agricultural expertise, especially irrigating desert land. Despite heavy criticism from Islamists, the Egyptian government "has been steadfast in maintaining those ties because Israeli technology has significantly improved Egypt's agriculture," says Steven A. Cook, a Mideast expert at Washington, D.C.'s Brookings Institution.

Other ties between Egypt and Israel remain minimal. Trade between the two is less than $30-million a year, and while an Israeli company makes T-shirts in a Cairo factory, Egypt has invested almost nothing in Israel.

"There is a tremendous amount of both informal social pressures against it and formal pressure," Cook says. "If you're an Egyptian and go to Israel you have to be signed off by the (Egyptian) interior ministry and you can be sure they're paying much closer attention to you."

Egypt's media also has been relentless in its criticism of Israeli and U.S. policy in the Mideast.

"Most troubling is that the Egyptian press continues to promote hatred and violence against Israel and, frankly, America," says Morton Klein, president of the Zionist Organization of America. "As we now understand full well, the media can really create a culture of hatred and violence."

Jordan's relations with Israel are not as strained as Egypt's, but that doesn't mean Jordan has thrived because of its peace treaty with its neighbor. After 1994, Jordan got a boost in tourism as thousands of Israelis crossed the border to visit Jerash, with its spectacular Roman ruins, and Petra, "the rose-red city half as old as time." But trade between the two nations has never been what Jordan hoped; until recently, Israel bought far more from Palestinians in the West Bank than it did from Jordanians.

The biggest economic benefits to Jordan and Egypt have come not from Israel but from the United States, which has given both countries aid in reward for making nice with their onetime enemy.

Egypt gets $2-billion a year from America, second only to Israel's $3-billion. And Jordan was the first Arab nation to sign a coveted free-trade agreement with the United States.

One key area in which the peace treaties appear valuable is security and intelligence-sharing. During the current Palestinian uprising, Jordan has thwarted terrorist attacks against Israel. Egypt, meanwhile, has signalled publicly and through back channels that "we're not looking to have a war here," Cook says.

"I think there is a lot more (intelligence-sharing) than we think there is," he says. "That's one of the things that's kind of stabilized the situation, as stable as it can be between the Egyptians and Israelis vis-a-vis Gaza," the Palestinian area between the two countries.

Klein of the Zionist organization says Israel's treaties with its Arab neighbors have produced a "cease-fire" but nothing resembling a "full normalization" of relations.

"The belief was that if you signed agreements with Egypt and Jordan, it would begin to spread to the rest of the Arab world," Klein adds. "But Syria, Iran and Iraq remain as hostile as ever to Israel. Practically, there's been very little advantage to Israel."

-- Susan Taylor Martin can be contacted at susan@sptimes.com.

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