Egypt’s New Role Could Rescue Sharon from the Gaza Quagmire

The latest coalition crisis hasn’t been all bad for Ariel Sharon: For one thing, it has helped kindle a friendship with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. Over the last few days, Mubarak and the Israeli prime minister have held several telephone conversations on how to push forward Sharon’s disengagement plan from the Palestinians, despite the political obstacles Sharon faces at home.

In a conversation Monday, Mubarak reiterated his support for Sharon’s plan and promised to promote it internationally.

But Mubarak’s role goes far deeper, according to the Egypt’s state-run Middle East News Agency. The agency reported that both Israel and the Palestinians have accepted an Egyptian plan for a cease fire, a resumption of peace talks and a meeting between Sharon and Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Ahmed Qurei.

The report could not be confirmed in Israel.

Right-wing figures in Israel have voiced reservations about the shifting winds in Israel’s latest political drama.

News of Egypt’s expanding role came as Sharon battled opposition to his disengagement plan within his own Likud Party and Cabinet, and amid growing pressure from Washington for progress toward an Israel pullout from the Gaza Strip.

Washington is urging Israel to lay the groundwork for the withdrawal in cooperation with the Palestinians. Sharon’s chief of staff, Dov Weisglass, went to Washington this week to meet with President Bush’s national security adviser, Condoleezza Rice.

Meanwhile, Israeli Foreign Minister Shalom headed to Cairo. The official purpose was to set up a joint committee “to improve relations between the two countries.”

But behind the scenes was an attempt to create a dramatic change: For the first time since 1967, Egypt might play a role in the Gaza Strip.

It would function not as a ruling authority, as it did from 1948 to 1967 but, Israel hopes, as an honest broker helping the transition to Palestinian rule and preventing arms smuggling from Egypt into Gaza.

Once Israel begins withdrawing troops and settlers from Gaza, some 200 Egyptian military experts would help P.A. security services impose their rule over the crowded strip, halting terrorist attacks and setting the stage for an orderly and complete Israeli withdrawal.

In the meantime, Sharon is gaining politically from these new developments with Egypt: He has signaled to his rivals in the Likud that he means business and is laying the groundwork for a withdrawal.

Mubarak benefits by demonstrating that he is doing something on behalf of the Palestinians, something many Egyptians have sought for a long time. At the same time, Egypt’s involvement weakens Hamas, which stands to lose from an orderly transition to P.A. rule, and limits the radical Islamist group’s power base in Gaza, on Egypt’s doorstep.

In the past two years, Egypt has improved its relations with Hamas. The country allowed the opening of a Hamas office in Cairo, and Egypt mediated in talks between Hamas and the Palestinian Authority over a possible cease fire last year.

But relations between Egypt and Hamas cooled after Israel’s killings of Hamas leaders Sheik Ahmed Yassin and Abdel Aziz Rantissi. The terrorist group’s leadership has shifted more toward Damascus.

The new Egyptian-Israeli dialogue came despite Israel’s killings of the Hamas leaders — indeed, perhaps because of them.

Contrary to many doomsday prophesies, Egypt has not turned its back on Israel over the killings. Even Israel’s recent military incursion into Gaza — which led Turkey to threaten to recall its ambassador from Tel Aviv — did not deter Mubarak from getting involved.

Omar Suleiman, Cairo’s intelligence chief and a seasoned Middle East peace broker, has been paying frequent visits to Jerusalem and Ramallah, headquarters of the Palestinian Authority.

But some Israeli experts are raising their eyebrows over Egypt’s return to the arena.

“I must say that I am concerned,” said Yuval Steinitz, chairman of the Knesset’s Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee. For years, Steinitz has suspected Egypt’s motives in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, saying “the real policy of Egypt is to allow Israel and the Palestinians to bleed together.”

Steinitz blames the Egyptians for having failed to prevent arms smuggling from Egypt into the Gaza Strip — and perhaps for supporting it.

“For years we have said that the Palestinian Authority was not doing enough to fight terrorism, until we realized that the P.A. was a terror-supporting regime,” Steinitz said. “The same applies to the Egyptian authority.”

Other Israeli experts say they hope Egypt’s new role will help lift Israel out of the political mire.

Matan Vilnai, a leader of the Labor Party, said combating terrorism is “a high-profile Egyptian interest.”

“I believe the Egyptians are potentially very good allies,” he said in a recent radio interview.

Asked what has changed to spur the Egyptians to become more involved, Vilnai said, “If there is change, it is on the Israeli side, because the Egyptians have always been there.”

The Palestinian reaction to the developments was somewhat subdued. Following a meeting of Palestinian leaders at Yasser Arafat’s office in Ramallah, the Palestinian Authority issued a statement Monday urging the dispatch of “international observers” to the Palestinian-populated territories. That could include Egyptian experts.

Other Palestinian groups said they hoped any Egyptian security role in Gaza would not serve the interests of the “Zionist enemy.”

Sami Abu Zuhri, Hamas’ spokesman in Gaza, urged Palestinians and Arabs “not to be deceived by the Zionist premier Ariel Sharon’s unilateral withdrawal plan,” which he said was just a ploy in Sharon’s scheme of “murder and devastation.”

If the Egyptians actually succeed in helping stabilize Gaza, their role could be a model for the West Bank, with Jordan serving as mediator there.

Israel’s talks with Cairo also could have more immediate effect: the departure of Arafat from quasi-detention at his compound in Ramallah.

In his talks in Jerusalem, Suleiman insisted that the Palestinian Authority president’s return to Gaza is paramount to restoring stability there.

But Israeli officials have indicated that there is no change in Israeli policy regarding Arafat: He can travel wherever he wants, but may not be allowed to return.

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