Egypt Playing Negative Role As Peace Parley Approaches

As the Annapolis peace parley rapidly approaches, some of the Arab and Muslim players expected to play a key role in creating conditions for a favorable outcome are proving to be more of an obstacle than asset.

Egypt, Syria and Turkey — each in its own way — are complicating efforts to hold what the United States envisions to be a tipping point in the long-dormant peace process.

Israel and the United States had hoped that Egypt, the key moderate Sunni nation in the region, would encourage the Palestinians and other regional protagonists to make peace with Israel the way it did in 1979.

Instead, Israeli officials say, Egypt is playing a negative role, turning a blind eye to the unimpeded smuggling of weapons across the Egyptian border to Hamas militants in Gaza. This, the Israelis say, is creating a major military threat and could scuttle the November gathering even before it begins.

As for Syria, If Annapolis is supposed to trigger a process of reconciliation between Israel and the entire Arab world, it is imperative that Syria attend. But Syrian leader Bashar Assad says he has no intention of coming to Maryland unless a much clearer offer of a deal with Israel is put on the table.

Complicating matters further are strains between Israel and Turkey, which reportedly is trying to mediate between Jerusalem and Damascus.

For months, tons of explosives and weapons have been flooding across the porous Egyptian border with Gaza, Israeli officials say. Dozens of Palestinian militiamen also have been slipping back into Gaza through Egypt after training in Iran, Syria or Lebanon.

Before the Hamas takeover in Gaza in June, there was a semblance of border control. Now, Israel says, the Egypt-Gaza border has become a “smugglers’ highway.”

So great is the increase in smuggling that Israel says it constitutes a “strategic threat,” both militarily and politically.

In mid-October, Israeli officials fired off an urgent message to Washington.

“The smuggling of weapons and terrorist experts,” they said, poses “a real threat to the holding of the Annapolis conference.”

The nightmare scenario is this: The smuggling encourages Hamas to launch a multiple rocket attack on Israeli urban centers, drawing Israel into a large-scale military operation in Gaza and pushing Annapolis off the agenda.

Israel foresees two major military problems if the smuggling remains unchecked: The introduction of longer-range rockets and the industrial wherewithal for Hamas to produce its own missiles on a grand scale. This would give the militants in Gaza the capacity to threaten Israel population centers in the southern and central regions of the country in very much the same way as the Lebanese-based Hezbollah does in the North.

In an editorial titled “Egypt must decide,” the daily Ha’aretz accused the Egyptians of playing a double game.

“Egypt could seal the border to smuggling if it would only decide to do so. Cairo seems to be turning a blind eye. This behavior raises the suspicion that it does not really want talks between Israel and Abbas to succeed or Palestinian Authority rule to be strengthened,” it said, referrring to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.

Indeed, Israeli officials also are concerned by Egyptian attempts behind the scenes to effect a reconciliation between Abbas’ moderate Fatah movement and the radical Hamas.

“Egypt is working against everything we are all trying to achieve,” senior Israeli officials complained to the Americans. “We are organizing a summit, trying to strengthen Abbas, and they are strengthening Hamas.”

The Egyptians see things differently. They claim Israel is to blame for the difficulties in the run-up to Annapolis.

“There are people in Israel who are trying to prevent prior agreement on the core issues, without which the conference will fail,” Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit charged. He further argued that if there is no agreement on the core issues by November, it would be better to postpone the conference than risk failure.

The difficulties on the Palestinian track could be helped by a Syrian presence in Annapolis. Although Assad says he has yet to receive a serious offer, he claims that Turkey is quietly mediating between Damascus and Jerusalem. He told the Tunisian daily al-Shuruq that the Turks have been doing so for the past six months.

Just two weeks ago, Turkish Foreign Minister Ali Babacan came to Jerusalem after stopping over in Damascus. Before that the Turks initiated a failed back channel involving former Foreign Ministry Director General Alon Liel and Syrian-American Abe Suleiman.

Ironically, some Israelis believe the chances of an accommodation with Syria are now greater in the wake of the reported Israeli airstrike against a nascent Syrian nuclear facility in September. Top Israel Defense Force generals believe there is now a real chance for a dialogue with Syria and Israel should explore it.

In farewell interviews, the outgoing deputy chief of staff, Maj.-Gen Moshe Kaplinsky , argued that detaching Syria from the Iranian-led “axis of evil” was a vital Israeli and American interest.

“There is much to be gained from removing Syria from the axis of evil,” Kaplinsky said, “and if the conditions are ripe, it can be done.”

At one point, the Turkish mediation effort seemed hampered by strains in ties between Israel and Turkey. The Turks were angered by Israeli planes overflying their airspace during the reported operation against the Syrian nuclear facility.

They were angered as well by what they saw as Israeli influence on American Jewish groups lobbying for congressional legislation to recognize the Armenian genocide.

Although the visit to Israel this week of the Turkish chief of staff, Gen. Yasar Buyukanit, seems to indicate business as usual, there are major concerns in Israel about Turkey’s geopolitical alignment. The fact that Ankara is now ruled by an Islamist government and president and seems to be gearing up for military action against the Kurds in northern Iraq raises question marks about its position within the moderate pro-Western camp.

Just as the Western camp would like to pluck Syria from the axis of evil, Iran is making renewed efforts to draw Turkey away from its Western orientation.

Amid this turmoil, U.S Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice traveled to Israel and the region this week determined to get the Annapolis agenda on track.

Rice has three main goals: To bring Israelis and Palestinians closer to agreement on a statement of principles, to impress Israeli government hard-liners of the need to go forward, and to get Israel and Egypt back on the same page.

One thing is clear: In the run-up to Annapolis, the geopolitical stakes are rising by the day.

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