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Can Egypt broker Hamas-Israel truce?

Cairo is working hard for a cease-fire, partly to curb Iran's growing clout.

By Josh MitnickCorrespondent, Ilene PrusherStaff writer / March 21, 2008

Fed up: Palestinians placed gas pumps on the street in Gaza City Wednesday to protest Israeli sanctions in Gaza.

Adel Hana/AP

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Tel Aviv and Jerusalem

Have the seeds of an Israel-Hamas truce already been planted in Egypt? A flurry of speculation this week hinted that Cairo is making headway parlaying a recent calm in fighting into a more robust compromise.

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Egypt is currently the only country talking to both the Jewish state and the Islamic militant rulers of Gaza about the conflict. Of course, the prospect of more turmoil at its doorstep gives the largest Arab country a new sense of urgency to pursue a cease-fire.

At the same time, the explosive trajectory of last month's escalation – Israel's army killed more than 100 Gazans in just five days while militants extended rocket fire to include a major Israeli city – is strengthening sympathy in the Arab world for anti-Western groups like Hamas, and its patrons in Syria and Iran.

"Iran is playing with many cards as it tries to mobilize the Arab world behind it – its support for [Muslim claims to] Jerusalem ... and for its relationship with Hamas and Islamic Jihad in Gaza," says Nabil Abdel Fattah deputy director of the Al Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies in Cairo.

Meanwhile, Egypt is trying to limit Iran's influence, he says. "These negotiations are important for Egyptian national security and Egypt's commitment vis-à-vis the Arab world and the Palestinian people."

But analysts and officials caution that Egypt not only has a poor track record brokering a cease-fire among Palestinian factions, it also has little leverage with which to cajole the sworn enemies into an accord.

"Egypt is an important player, but I don't perceive it as a decisive force that can bring a durable cease-fire between Hamas and Israel," says Basem Ezbidi, a political scientist at Bir Zeit University in the West Bank. "Egypt hasn't even been able to bring peace among the Palestinians, between Hamas and Fatah. How can Egypt bring peace between Israel and Hamas?"

Indeed, finding a solution requires unraveling a Gordian knot of conflicting interests between Israel, Egypt, and the rival Palestinian governments – Hamas in Gaza and the Western-backed Palestinian Authority in Ramallah.

And yet, the breach of the Rafah border by Gazans in January drove home the national security threat to Egypt of continuing instability in the coastal strip. "That caused a sea change. They can't afford to have another population explosion into their territory," says Nicholas Pelham, a senior analyst at the International Crisis Group in Jerusalem. "Egypt now has a direct national security stake in a cease-fire in Gaza."

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