Little public credit has been given to King Hassan II of Morocco for his efforts of the past decade to soften the almost 40-year-old confrontation between the Arab states and Israel and particularly for his role in the rapprochement between Egypt and Israel that began nine years ago.
The king was more consistent than any other Arab leader in his attempts to reach this goal, but he maintained no less consistently that such efforts should be covert. Consequently, while others in Europe and the United States sought recognition as go-betweens, Hassan's role has been neglected. But he is clearly one of the unsung heroes of Middle East peace-seeking.
He has sought a path between the Arab consensus and the pursuit of covert contacts with the Israelis, between caring for the Arab cause and trying to turn confrontation into negotiated coexistence.
For the sake of preserving the Arab consensus, Hassan deployed Moroccan military units with the Egyptians and Syrians during their war against Israel in 1973. In the name of Arab backing for the PLO, he hosted the 1974 Arab summit in Rabat, where, contrary to expectations, Morocco joined Egypt and Saudi Arabia in a resolution depriving King Hussein of Jordan of the right to speak for the Palestinians. And when President Anwar Sadat of Egypt struck the Camp David Accords with Israel in 1978 and found himself almost totally isolated in the Arab world as a result, Hassan abandoned him, backtracked from his support for Sadat and rejoined the ranks of the Arab consensus rejecting the Sadat move.
But Hassan has also worked for an Arab-Israeli breakthrough. He was the first Arab leader to play host -- secretly, in his Rabat royal palace in October 1976 -- to an Israeli prime minister, Yitzhak Rabin. Even then the king advocated behind-the-scenes contacts with Syria and Saudi Arabia (which never materialized). In the middle of 1977, four months before Sadat's arrival in Israel, the Moroccan king resumed his initiative, inviting senior Egyptian and Israeli representatives to Morocco. This effort culminated in two face-to-face talks, at his palaces in Rabat and Marrakech, between the foreign minister of Israel, Moshe Dayan, and the deputy prime minister of Egypt, Dr. Hassan El-Touhamy.
These Egyptian-Israeli meetings, with the presence of the king, were not designed to produce an instant peace treaty, but to clarify to the leaders of Egypt and Israel each other's real positions, and to ascertain whether a peace agreement was attainable that would satisfy the basic expectations of both sides. King Hassan's meetings contributed more than any other attempt to pave the way for the Sadat visit to Jerusalem, which he publicly welcomed, and to the establishment of direct diplomacy and eventually the peace treaty between Egypt and Israel.
Now Hassan has resumed his involvement in the Middle East peace process by inviting Prime Minister Shimon Peres (he had already received Peres in Morocco in 1978 and '79, while Peres was leader of the Labor Party in opposition). The king has positioned himself again at center stage, and for the first time in full public view.
Since Hassan enjoys a special position in the Arab world, having been host to most of the important Islamic and Arab summit meetings, and since Morocco is still formally in a union with Gadhafi's Libya, the king's latest effort may have an impact on the Mideast second only to that of Sadat's trip to Jerusalem nine years ago.
It was not surprising that Syria, along with Libya, Algeria and Iraq, immediately rejected King Hassan's move, as they did Sadat's. But the welcome of Egypt's Mubarak and the wait-and-see attitude of other Arab countries mean that Morocco has not been left isolated and vulnerable. It is worth noting that Hassan has consistently sought and received the support of Saudi Arabia for his previous diplomatic moves.
His Peres initiative will doubtless renew the debate among the Arab states about seeking a negotiated rather than a military settlement of the lingering conflict.
No instant breakthrough is likely to flow from the Hassan-Peres summit. But King Hassan reflects more than any other leader the Arab consensus. He has taken upon himself a renewed and now open involvement in Mideast diplomacy, and lowered what have been widely perceived as high psychological barriers against new direct dealings with Israel. He has put in motion a renewed agenda for contacts and possible negotiations between some of the parties to the Middle East conflict, even though their respective substantive positions have not yet basically changed.
The writer was press spokesman for Israeli prime ministers Yitzhak Rabin and Menachem Begin.