By Uri Dan and Dennis Eisenberg

As a play, the performance would qualify as low-grade farce.

But this is for real, and it's a tragedy.

Israeli Druze Azzam Azzam, caged in a heavily-guarded Cairo court where he is on trial for spying, cries: "I am innocent - innocent!" His protestations are given wide media coverage in Egypt. Mobs egged on by an Egyptian lawyer chant "Traitor, traitor." Natan Sharansky, remembering his years in a Russian cell on trumped-up charges, protests vigorously, but is advised by Netanyahu's administration, "Cool it." The reason? It is considered expedient in Jerusalem not to upset the Egyptian president after his recent posture as a reasonable man busy coaxing Palestinians and Israelis back to the negotiating table.

But this mask of conciliation is just one of several disguises Mubarak dons and doffs as he flits on and off stage, the leading player in an Egyptian theater of the absurd. His first pose is as the Moslem hero seducing the Cairo mob, using Azzam to demonstrate Israel's evil intent toward Egypt and, by extension, all Arabs.

Mubarak wears his second disguise for the benefit of Washington, in particular powerful Republican congressmen outraged by the vicious antisemitic cartoons and articles published in the Egyptian media.

Fearful that US economic aid might be blocked or curtailed, Mubarak has ordered his "free" editors to desist from using Nazi-style anti-Jewish propaganda, for the time being at any rate. Diplomats in Cairo have commented on the recent muting of virulent antisemitism in the major media.

Mubarak mask number three is the "deus ex machina device": a supernatural (Egyptian) force suddenly appears from the sky to solve a seemingly-insoluble problem. Onto the stage leaps Osama el-Baz, Mubarak's chief political adviser-turned-magician, scuttling between Egypt, Gaza and the Jewish state in a bid to get Arafat and Netanyahu to embrace each other again. He poses between Arafat and Netanyahu, every bit the honest broker, and never mind that the man is known to be a virulent Israel-hater. After all this is pure theater, where we are expected to suspend reality.

Mubarak's diplomats in the US warned him that his attempts to sabotage American peace-making efforts between Israel and the Palestinians were causing deep resentment in Washington. Mubarak's advice to Arafat - get tough and act tough - was angering both the Senate and Congress. So off el-Baz went, scurrying between Egypt, Gaza and Israel with a sincere expression on his face and every appearance of trying to coax the dove of peace to alight on the shoulders of Arafat and Netanyahu.

But there is a fatal flaw in the Egyptian president's histrionics. This should be the moment for Yasser Arafat to act meek and mild, supporting el-Baz's efforts. After all, it is no secret that the PLO chief doesn't move without "consulting" the Egyptian president (read: doing what Mubarak says.) Yet day after day Arafat foments acts of violence against Israelis, every day there are riots in Hebron.

And Netanyahu, aiming to prove to disillusioned supporters that he is really a hawk at heart, says plainly, "Arafat gave the green light for a serious outbreak of violence" linked to aggressive actions by Palestinians against the settlers of Morag in the Gaza Strip. Another violent act: A 23-year-old Jewish woman is shot by terrorists near Har Adar. Neither during nor after these incidents is there any sight or sound of Palestinian policemen, the ones who are supposed to be preventing violence. As if to mock Israelis even more, terrorist killer Abdel Qaisi is allowed to "escape" from his prison cell in Jericho to safe asylum in Gaza.

Qaisi, the murderer of Eta Tzur and her 12-year-old son Ephraim of Beit El, seems to have been the beneficiary of the Jericho saying: "Lock the prison door in daylight, but open the window at night." Peace envoy el-Baz hasn't seen fit to utter a word about this latest outbreak of Palestinian violence.

MUBARAK'S aim is transparent. While soothing American anger by giving the impression that he is curbing his press and acting as a peacemaker, he quietly encourages Arafat to continue provoking violence, then blame Israeli for "Palestinian frustration." This was the tactic that led docile Israeli leaders Yitzhak Rabin, Shimon Peres - and now Binyamin Netanyahu - to make repeated concessions.

The hint that more concessions are ahead came from our premier this week, when he declared that "what is required right now is to shun violence and return to the negotiating table. We are engaged in the process, with Egyptian assistance, to try to resume negotiations for peace and security between us and the Palestinians."

Netanyahu's words must have caused sly winks to pass between Mubarak and Arafat. In one breath, the premier honors Mubarak for his peacemaking efforts and accords Arafat credibility by proposing to sit down with him at the table and negotiate, despite Arafat's green light to violence. As Netanyahu has demonstrated this past year, what that means is that there will be no significant demands on Arafat to fulfill his obligations under the Oslo accords. Instead, he will receive further concessions as thanks for deigning to come to the negotiating table.

One of these concessions has already been signaled. In exchange for Israel's continuing to build Jewish homes on Har Homa, several thousand Arab housing units will also go up in the area. This will, at a single blow, destroy the role of Har Homa in completing the ring of Jewish suburbs around Jerusalem; and Arafat will gain a bridgehead from Bethlehem into the Jewish capital.

Also on the cards are plans to exclude some Jewish settlements from Israeli control, as maps already drawn up by the administration clearly demonstrate. Finally, in gratitude to Egypt for allowing el-Baz to bring "peace," any future official Israeli protest on behalf of an innocent man being held in Egypt is likely to be muted.

Staged, a play following these lines would qualify as low-grade farce, and its main actors would be roundly booed. But this is real life and, as such, it verges on tragedy - for the Jews of Israel, as well as for Azzam Azzam and his family. (c) Jerusalem Post 1997


Uri Dan and Dennis Eisenberg are authors of The Mossad: Secrets of the Israel Secret Service and other books on the Middle East.

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