- The Washington Times - Tuesday, November 18, 2003

JERUSALEM — The chairman of the Israeli Knesset’s powerful foreign-affairs and defense committee rejected Cairo’s mediation in the search for an Israeli-Palestinian cease-fire yesterday, reflecting the uneasy relationship between the neighboring countries.

Yuval Steinitz, a politician from Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s Likud Party, accused Egypt of hostility to both Israel and the peace process as Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia revealed that armed groups behind hundreds of attacks against Israel had been invited to Cairo in an attempt to persuade them to call a truce.

“What’s happening is particularly serious, because a factor hostile to Israel has entered the Palestinian domain, and it is equally hostile, in my opinion, to the peace process — and that is Egypt,” said Mr. Steinitz.

Egyptian intelligence chief Omar Suleiman held talks with Palestinian leaders on Monday as part of efforts to broker a cease-fire, and one of his aides is to meet today with representatives of factions such as Hamas and Islamic Jihad in their Gaza stronghold.

Mr. Suleiman also was instrumental in securing an earlier truce, or “hudna,” which collapsed in August.

But Mr. Steinitz warned that “if the new hudna allows Egypt to increase its influence within the Palestinian Authority and the terrorist organizations such as Hamas, then the long-term strategic consequences will be more dangerous for Israel.”

Egypt became the first Arab country to formally recognize Israel in a 1979 peace treaty signed on the White House lawn by Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin and Egyptian President Anwar Sadat, and by President Carter as a witness.

But relations rarely have been any warmer than tepid since then, and Egypt has yet to replace its ambassador to Tel Aviv after his withdrawal in protest at the start of the Palestinian intifada in September 2000.

Current Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, who succeeded Mr. Sadat after his assassination in 1981, has made only one visit to Israel — in 1995 for the funeral of assassinated Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin.

Relations between Mr. Mubarak and Mr. Sharon have been distinctly icy, with the latter ruling out any Egyptian role in the current peace process if it does not release Azzam Azzam, an Israeli Arab jailed in Egypt for spying.

Azzam has been serving a life sentence of forced labor in Egypt since August 1997, when he was convicted of spying for Israel. Successive Israeli governments have demanded his release, but Egypt consistently has refused.

Israel also is infuriated by what it sees as an Egypt’s reluctance to halt the smuggling of weapons to Palestinian militants across its border with the Gaza Strip.

For its part, Egypt has laid the blame for the failure of the previous hudna firmly at the door of Israel.

Hamas and Islamic Jihad formally called off their truce in August to protest an Israeli air raid in Gaza City that killed Hamas co-founder Ismail Abu Shanab as retaliation for a suicide bus bomb two days earlier in Jerusalem.

“It is necessary for Israel to respect this [truce] when it happens and that what happened last time does not repeat itself, when the cease-fire collapsed because of Israeli practices,” Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Maher declared recently.

Meanwhile in Cairo, the Egyptian government daily newspaper Al Ahram said yesterday the Sharon government in Israel seeks to maintain violence in the Middle East to undermine efforts for peace, including Egyptian mediation for a truce with the Palestinians.

“The thing that interests the Sharon administration is maintaining the situation of violence and a lack of confidence in the peace process and the Palestinian commitment to that process,” the paper said.

Al Ahram accused the Israeli government of acting this way because “it is incapable of taking up the challenge of making historic compromises which will put an end to the sufferings of the Palestinian and Israeli people.”

The impotence of the Israeli government stems from Mr. Sharon’s belief that “repression and the pursuit of the occupation will push the Palestinian people into submission, and by consequence will abort the ‘road map,’” the daily said.

The “road map” plan for peace drafted by the Bush administration calls for the creation of a Palestinian state by 2005.

“Sharon is betting on the fact that repression will incite a violent Palestinian reaction, which he will use to show that the Palestinians do not want the peace process,” Al Ahram continued.

“It is not the first time Egypt has taken the initiative to encourage Palestinian factions to unify their ranks, in order to prevent the Sharon administration from sowing discord among them and showing that the Palestinians are incapable of making decisions on the peace process,” the daily added.

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