Egypt's role in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict appears to be slipping, reports Dina Ezzat
Confronted with tough American and British lobbying against its efforts to prompt the UN Security Council to issue a presidential statement against the Israeli invasion of the Palestinian prison in Jericho, Egypt is now working with the Arab group in New York to decide the next move, which is to protest against the ongoing Israeli aggression on Palestinians under occupation and the worsening humanitarian conditions in Gaza.
"Unfortunately, our efforts, along with the Arab group, to issue a strong presidential statement [by the UN Security Council] were aborted but we are going to keep pursuing the matter in the UN," Abul-Gheit said this week.
The top Egyptian diplomat said Egypt and the rest of the Arab Group in New York will seize the opportunity of the monthly briefing accorded by UN Secretary-General Coordinator for the Middle East Alvero De Soto, due on 30 March, to raise the issue and request the international community to live up to its responsibilities in relation to protecting the Palestinians from Israeli aggression.
Abul-Gheit was speaking hours before meeting UN envoy on Syria Terje Roed-Larsen, using the opportunity to convey a message to the UN secretary-general about Egypt's concern over the situation in Gaza and the increasing pace of Israeli humanitarian aggression against Palestinians under occupation.
Beyond movement on the international front, Egypt has been criticised by some Egyptian commentators and Palestinian diplomats for what they have qualified as its inadequate reaction to the assault on the PLO prison in Jericho. Egypt, they said, failed to take any assertive measures such as withdrawing its ambassador to Israel, a diplomatic measure it undertook in 2000 in the wake of the Israeli invasion of Gaza. They also argue that Egypt has failed to make good on its claim that it can use its friendly relations with Israel to serve the interests of Palestinians living in the occupied territories.
Such allegations are flatly rejected by Cairo which insists it reacted adequately and promptly by sending messages of displeasure not just to Israel but to Britain and the US who pulled out their monitors from the Jericho prison, without notifying either Egypt or the Palestine Authority, shortly before the Israeli assault.
Critics argue that there is no clearer indication of Egypt's marginalisation in the administration of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict than the fact that it was sidelined in the prison incident from beginning to end and that it failed to use its relationship with Tel Aviv to contain the damage sustained by the assault and the consequent siege imposed by Israel on the Palestinian territories. For their part, analysts acting as advisors to the Egyptian government on the issue argue that assuming a role does not necessarily mean assuming responsibility to fix every single problem that arises in the relationship between the Israeli occupation and the Palestinian administration which, they add, is going through a tough transitional phase with the transfer of power from Fatah to Hamas.
Egypt, defended one official, was following the debate over the declared intention of Hamas to release Ahmed Saadat, the recently elected member in the Palestinian parliament and general secretary of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine who had been kept in the Jericho prison with the supervision of US and UK monitors upon a deal brokered between former Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and the US following Israeli attempts to capture Saadat for his alleged role in the assassination of Rehavam Zeeiv, an Israeli cabinet minister, in October 2001.
Cairo likes to credit itself for the physical well- being of Saadat and his associates now being held in Israeli custody awaiting trial before an Israeli court. Cairo, the same officials say, would also like to give itself a pat on the back for the safety of hundreds of other Palestinians who could have been killed by the Israeli occupation army.
Egyptian sources say Cairo is sending clear messages to the Israeli government urging an ease to the siege imposed on the Palestinian territories that has caused a humanitarian crisis on the ground.
This said, Cairo seems convinced that Israel, with US support, has chosen to flex its muscles to test the reaction of the newly elected Hamas government. This is perceived in Egypt as a power play close to the Israeli elections on 28 March. The Egyptian role, officials in Cairo say, is not to be measured against routine political power plays.
"When Mahmoud Al-Zahhar, the nominated foreign minister of Palestine, is officially assigned by President Mahmoud Abbas, we will certainly meet him to exchange views about what needs to be done," Abul-Gheit said, adding that Egypt is hopeful that the Hamas government will stick to the peace process with all that goes with it including the road map. Egypt, Abul-Gheit said, has a duty to push the peace process forward and it is committed to that.
Reports coming from Palestine indicate anger by ordinary Palestinians that Egypt tends to strictly define its role to the management of negotiations rather than the containment of crises imposed by the Israelis on Palestinians.
"Egyptian diplomacy is losing its weight in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and is showing an alarming diplomatic withdrawal when it chooses to restrict itself to promoting Palestinian-Israeli talks irrespective of the developments on the ground," criticised commentator and retired diplomat Abdallah Al-Ashaal. According to Al-Ashaal there is nothing that could be said in defence of what he called the "Egyptian diplomatic failure" in dealing with the Israeli prison assault. "By taking a mild reaction on this matter, Egypt clearly indicated that it has no wish to get into a confrontation with Israel and certainly not with the US over the Palestinian file," Al-Ashaal said. He added that even if Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas did not reacted forcefully, Egypt should have.
"This is a matter of national security interests for Egypt," Al-Ashaal argued. He added that by tolerating this show of Israeli aggression against the Palestinians, it tells the Middle East region in its entirety, and the US and the European Union as well, that Egyptian leadership in the region has declined to an unprecedented level.
The exact guidelines of Egypt's future efforts in relation to the Saadat episode and other elements of the deteriorating rapport between the Palestinian Authority and Israel will be mapped out at a tête-à-tête between President Hosni Mubarak and Palestinian President Abbas on Sunday in Cairo. Secretary-general of the ruling National Democratic Party Safwat El-Sherif said the talks should pave the way for an Egyptian-Israeli dialogue in the next few weeks. "President Mubarak is determined to exert every effort to support the Palestinian people. He is convinced, however, that it is wiser to intensify talks with Israel following the Israeli elections that will be held on 28 March."