Arab leaders may hold key to Gaza calm

Israel pressed into Gaza Thursday, killing at least 12 Palestinian militants.

With Israel pushing deeper into Gaza and Palestinian militants successfully launching rockets at a major Israeli city for the first time, international intermediaries are stepping up efforts to forge a breakthrough that could pull the two sides back from the brink.

But whereas a decade ago US and European envoys filled a crucial role in brokering peace deals and getting the parties to talk, now regional players willing to talk to Hamas are coming forward as the countries that may hold the keys to cooling off the crisis.

Egyptian officials in particular – alongside those from countries including Turkey, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia – have been acting as the go-between in the escalating conflict, filling the shoes that once would have been worn by a senior US envoy to the Middle East, a United Nations official, or someone from the EU.

"During this transitional period, only Egypt and Jordan can play a mediating role," says Emad Gad, a senior analyst at the Al-Ahram Center in Cairo. "But Jordan has a serious problem with the Hamas government, so in reality, only Egypt can take the lead. Only Egypt has contacts with Hamas, with Israel, with Saudi Arabia. Also, Egypt is trying to show the American administration that Egypt can play a third-party role and can benefit stability in the region."

After the 1993 Oslo Peace Accords, periodic breakdowns in the peace process often meant the arrival of big-name mediators such as the White House Middle East peace envoy Dennis Ross, who served through several US administrations, or Norway's Terje Larsen, who served as the UN's special coordinator on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Now, there is no singular address for brokering Middle East peace. Even the so-called Quartet – an alliance that includes the US, the UN, the European Union, and Russia – has no office or spokesman here. And a Quartet meeting hasn't happened in nearly half a year, since Hamas was elected to run the Palestinian Authority.

With very little room for dialogue between Hamas and the countries represented by the Quartet – most of them are banned from having relations with Hamas because it is designated as a terrorist group – it is regional Arab and Muslim countries working to calm the violent standoff.

At the forefront is Egypt, which has used its position as a neighbor on relatively good terms with all of the parties. Egypt has been using its clout to try to forge a common policy with Saudi Arabia, analysts say. That provides a kind of counterpoint to Syria, which has allowed the Hamas leadership abroad, under the aegis of Khaled Meshaal, to live and operate in Damascus.

Mr. Meshaal, or Hamas outside, as many here refer to it, is reported to have been instrumental in ordering attacks on Israel such as the June 25 kidnapping of Israeli Cpl. Gilad Shalit.

"Egypt prefers to deal with Ismail Haniyeh and to deal with Hamas inside, not Hamas outside," says Mr. Gad. At the same time, he notes, Egypt's position vis-a-vis Hamas is not necessarily smooth, because it is essentially a wing of the Muslim Brotherhood, viewed as an illegal organization in Egypt.

It is in part for this reason that Egypt has been trying to convince Saudi Arabia to come on board in efforts to mediate a cool-down in the situation. Earlier this week, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak discussed the Israeli-Palestinian crisis with King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia in an unscheduled visit to Jeddah, requesting that Saudi officials make use of their connections with Hamas.

"Egypt is trying to get some backing from Saudi Arabia," Gad adds. "Saudi Arabia has its own unique influence on the Hamas government – politically, religiously, and economically."

Even Egypt's current coverage of the crisis, Gad notes, has been different from past bouts of Israeli-Palestinian violence, such as during the intifada. The state-run media, he says, has been given a "message" to underplay the state of suffering in Gaza.

Jordan, which always has an important pull on Palestinian affairs, also comes into the equation. On Wednesday, Jordan's King Abdullah II warned Palestinians against an escalation of the situation in Gaza, and in a telephone call to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, expressed concern about civilians being harmed in Gaza, the official Jordanian news agency reported.

But Daoud Kuttab, a Jordanian-Palestinian analyst based in Amman, says Jordan's influence tends to have more resonance in the West Bank – once part of the Hashemite Kingdom – than it does in Gaza. Moreover, he says, Jordanian groups have been asking that in any prisoner release that might come out of a deal to release Corporal Shalit, 30 Jordanians held in Israel prisons be released, too.

"People here have been calling on these guys in Egypt to get their prisoners released in an exchange," Mr. Kuttab says, "and I think that it's kind of handicapping the Jordanians."

In addition to Arab neighbors, Turkey has offered its assistance. Earlier in the week, Ahmet Davudoglu, an adviser to Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan, went to Syria and met with Hamas's Meshaal. The role of Turkey – which made a controversial move to receive Hamas officials earlier this year, despite the country's diplomatic alliance with Israel – was lauded by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and other US officials as helpful.

If there is any kind of breakthrough involving the release of Shalit, Arab interlocutors say they can't see it happening without an accompanying release of Palestinian prisoners by Israel. The US, for its part, takes no official position in whether or not Israel should make a deal to save the life of its soldier.

"What we are reiterating is that we understand why Israel is taking the actions it does, it has a right to protect itself and its citizens," says Stuart Tuttle, the spokesman of the US Embassy in Tel Aviv. "We put the blame on the group that caused the raid and the kidnapping, and secondly, on the Hamas government for not taking on its responsibility to prevent terrorism, rather than helping precipitate these events."

Still, he says that the US does remain "very involved" in the process, mostly to the tune of containment: "What we don't want to see is an escalation," Mr. Tuttle says. "We don't want to see measures taken which exacerbate the situation."

Observers of US involvement in the region say that the lack of interest on the part of the US to do more than comment and contain is born of many factors, from distraction with Iraq to the lack of ability to see an "in" for a serious peace negotiator anyway.

"There's no Dennis Ross because there's no peace to mediate," says Scott Lasensky, a senior research associate at the US Institute of Peace's Center for Conflict Analysis and Prevention.

"It's hard to imagine what kind of outcome the US or any other international negotiator could bring right now, other than containing," he says. "I think the countries in the region see the potential for spillover and so they seem to be focused on stability and public order." As for the US role here, he says, there seems no point of entry, keeping even old Middle East hands in Washington away. "There's a lack of opportunities, and in the meantime, perhaps we've boxed ourselves into a corner."

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