Egypt plays Mideast peace broker

An assassination attempt was made yesterday on the man who may replace Yasser Arafat as Palestinian chief.

When Mahmoud Abbas, the front-runner to replace Yasser Arafat as head of the Palestinian Authority, helicoptered in with Mr. Arafat's body from Egypt for the funeral Friday, an important player in the contentious matter of Israel's planned withdrawal from the Gaza Strip was by his side.

But it wasn't an official from the quartet of nations who have backed the road map for peace between Israel and the Palestinians. Instead, the man at Mr. Abbas's side was Omar Suleiman, the Egyptian intelligence chief who has emerged in recent years as a key broker between the Israelis, Palestinians, and the US.

Mr. Suleiman quickly got a taste of the potential drawbacks of wading into the muddled Palestinian politics. A seething, emotional crowd surrounded and rocked the helicopter when it landed in Ramallah, keeping the men trapped inside for almost half an hour. The crowd's grief, and poor Palestinian security arrangements, threw the plans for Arafat's burial completely off kilter.

But the turmoil and Mr. Suleiman's presence illustrate both the threats and the opportunities of Arafat's passing. Egypt's deep engagement with Palestinian issues has had much to do with the fact that neither the US nor Israel would talk to Arafat, having come to see him as a untrustworthy partner for peace. At US urging, Egypt became a sort of back-channel between the sides.

Arafat's death opens the way for US and Israeli demands that new leadership be found before talks could resume. But competition among various Palestinian power centers, ranging from the mainstream Fatah movement Arafat founded to the hard-line Islamists of Hamas, may also make it harder for new leaders like Abbas to deliver on any political deals they cut. This could leave Egypt, which is expected to play a role in securing Gaza after the scheduled Israeli withdrawal next year, in the middle of the competing factions.

"This is a historical chance for the resumption of negotiations, but it will depend on what the Palestinian factions do,'' says Emad Gad, a political scientist at Cairo's Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies. "If there is fighting and obstruction among the factions, it will leave [Abbas] and [Ahmed Qurei, prime minister of the Palestinian Authority] managing in very difficult circumstances."

Those difficult circumstances began yesterday when gunfire erupted as Abbas visited a tent in Gaza set up to mourn the loss of Arafat. Witnesses said a Palestinian bodyguard was killed and five people were wounded, according to the Associated Press. AP television showed a group of about 20 men entering the tent where Abbas, former Gaza security chief Mohammed Dahlan, and other key Palestinian leaders had congregated. The gunmen shouted: "Abbas and Dahlan are agents for the Americans." Abbas was not hurt. Dahlan, speaking on Al Jazeera television, denied it was an assassination attempt.

Neither Abbas nor Mr. Qurei commands the respect that Mr. Arafat did as the face of Palestinian nationalism for over 40 years. And if they show any signs of losing their grip on Palestinian affairs, already chaotic thanks to weak institutions and corruption, observers say there are many waiting in the wings to fill any vacuum.

Chief among them is Hamas, the militant group that urges no compromise with Israel and has the support to take control of Gaza after the Israeli withdrawal if international steps aren't taken to bolster the position of moderate leaders like Mr. Abbas.

That's where Egypt comes in. Mr. Suleiman and the Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Abul Gheit have been negotiating with the Israelis and Palestinians on the Gaza pullout, seeking to avoid chaos and a security vacuum that could help Hamas. Egypt has offered to train and help restructure Palestinian security forces under the control of the PA. Today, security in Gaza is ad hoc, and run by armed groups allied with the various factions.

Though Egypt, at the urging of the US, had been pushing for a unified chain of command for the armed groups in Gaza, Arafat had dragged his feet, in part because he enjoyed having control of his own party security apparatus. Mr. Qurei is much more encouraging toward the Egyptian plan.

But for it to really work, most analysts expect that a meaningful cease-fire will have to be declared between the Palestinians and Israelis, something that looks far from likely.

"I think the Israelis will use Arafat's death and the political uncertainty in the PA to get some sort of deal,'' says Joshua Stacher, a political scientist at St. Andrews University in Scotland. "Obviously, the Israelis, the Palestinians, and the Americans are the key players here. But Egypt is going to be playing a contributing role, they'll be the ones that will go to the Palestinians and say, 'You've got to sort out your own problems."

Mr. Gad expects that in the coming months, Egypt will host a meeting of the Palestinian groups in Cairo to do just that. "They will perhaps need Egyptian assistance in asking organizations like Hamas and Al Jihad to hold negotiations, what they call a national dialog, to set an agenda to deal with [Israeli Prime Minister Ariel] Sharon's plan to disengage with Gaza, and to resume talks on the West Bank."

In the end, any peace plan will come with a more direct engagement between the Israelis, the Palestinians, and the US, observers say. President Bush promised over the weekend to work toward an independent Palestine and hinted that without Arafat, his government might be more engaged.

"I think that the new leadership in Palestine ... is going to get more direct contacts with Israel and the American administration, which will perhaps minimize Egypt's importance as we go forward,'' says Gad. "This is probably for the best, but the window of opportunity for change must be seized fast."

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