Can Egypt broker Hamas-Israel truce?

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

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

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.

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."

A long-term solution, says Mr. Pelham, needs to give Israelis relief from rocket attacks, Egypt stability on its border, Hamas some international recognition of its political power, and the Palestinian Authority control of Gaza crossings. [Editor's note: The original version omitted the word "crossings."]

Saeb Erekat, the chief Palestinian negotiator, said Wednesday that there was a possibility of reaching a "mutual tahdiyeh" – an Arabic term for "calming" – with Israel. Dr. Erekat added that this does not amount to a truce, which is a more formal matter, but is a mutual if temporary agreement that says, "stop shooting."

"President [Hosni] Mubarak is trying to get to a tahdiyeh. The Egyptians are trying to see if we can get to a tahdiyeh with guarantees," Erekat told foreign journalists in Jerusalem. The guarantees are meant to create assurances that any "calm" would not crumble so easily.

One of the demands of Hamas is that Israel halt all military activity in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, including targeted assassinations. Israeli military officials have balked at such an arrangement because they want the freedom pursue militants who launch rockets from Gaza. Last week, Israeli undercover military agents assassinated four men from Islamic Jihad in Bethlehem.

Ghazi Hamad, a Hamas spokesman in Gaza, says that it is this sort of action that Israel must agree to stop as part of a tahdiyeh.

"I think we are not so far from reaching a tahdiyeh. But it depends on the position of Israel now. They have to accept the demand to stop all military actions in the West Bank and Gaza," Mr. Hamad said in a telephone interview.

This month, Yemen tried to start Hamas-Fatah reconciliation talks, but analysts were divided on whether internal Palestinian peacemaking must precede a cease-fire with Israel, or follow it.

Another demand of both Hamas and the Palestinian Authority is to open up Gaza's border crossings with Egypt and Israel, ending a nine-month economic stranglehold on Gaza's 1.4 million residents and releasing the pressure on the Hamas rulers. But while the Islamists are demanding a presence at the crossing alongside security officers loyal to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, Israel refuses to recognize any trappings of Hamas sovereignty.

The "calm" talks are being overseen by Egyptian intelligence chief Omar Suleiman, widely considered to be the most powerful official after President Mubarak. Mahmoud al-Zahar, a Hamas politician linked to the military wing, traveled to Cairo as recently as two weeks ago. In the past week, Israeli Defense Ministry official Amos Gilad twice visited Cairo, according to the Israeli press.

While denying using Egypt as a mediator with Hamas, Israeli officials said they are trying to come up with a plan to shut down the weapons flow between Gaza and Sinai as a prerequisite for any calm. That may require the Israelis to drop a long-held opposition to allowing Egypt to boost the numbers it deploys on the border.

"This matter is key," says Mark Regev, a spokesman for Israel's prime minister. "If you have a situation of quiet in the south, and there is a continuation of smuggling of Grad rockets into Gaza, that's not a solution. That's a mirage."

Liam Stack contributed from Cairo.

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