- The Washington Times - Friday, December 3, 2004

TEL AVIV — Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak told Palestinians yesterday that Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon represents the best hope for peace, a rare note of praise by an Arab leader for an Israeli leader reviled in much of the Arab world.

“I think if [the Palestinians] can’t achieve progress in the time of the current [Israeli] prime minister, it will be very difficult to make any progress in peace,” Mr. Mubarak told reporters at the opening of Egypt’s Port Said Harbor, the Associated Press reported.

Mr. Mubarak’s remarks came just days after Egyptian intelligence chief Omar Suleiman visited Jerusalem to discuss Mr. Sharon’s plan to pull all Israeli settlers out of the Gaza Strip and parts of the West Bank and to discuss plans for upcoming Palestinian elections.

The fragile, but warming, ties this year between the two countries have proven resilient after being tested in the past two months.

In October, terrorists bombed Egyptian Red Sea resorts in the Sinai Peninsula that are popular with Israelis, killing at least 34 persons.

Then, two weeks ago, three Egyptian soldiers were killed by mistake by Israeli tank fire on the border between the Gaza Strip and Egypt.

That forced a postponement of a previously scheduled visit by Mr. Suleiman, but it finally took place on Thursday.

“[Mubarak] didn’t have to do that,” said Scott Lasensky, a Middle East expert at the United States Institute of Peace, commenting on the Egyptian president’s statement.

“Egypt rarely goes out on a limb to praise an Israeli government, or tell the Palestinians what they should or should not do. They usually leave their admonishments behind close doors.”

Israel and Egypt have had chilly relations since the outbreak of the Palestinian intifada in September 2000. Within weeks Egypt recalled its ambassador from Tel Aviv and has yet to return a top-ranking diplomat.

The improvement began earlier this year, as Mr. Sharon first introduced an initiative to unilaterally withdraw from the Gaza Strip and evacuate Jewish settlements there.

Egypt indicated months ago its willingness to send security advisers to Gaza to train a new Palestinian police force that would boost law enforcement after an Israeli withdrawal.

On Thursday, Egypt reportedly agreed to deploying 750 soldiers along its border with the Gaza Strip flash-point town of Rafah to block weapons shipments to Palestinian militants.

With improved prospects for negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians after the death of leader Yasser Arafat, Mr. Mubarak’s comment served to “prepare the hearts” of Israelis to Egypt’s continued activism in the peace process, wrote Zvi Barel, an Arab affairs commentator for Israel’s Ha’aretz newspaper.

“These comments contain an important strategic assumption, which is that Egypt believes in the willingness of Sharon and in his ability to carry out the disengagement plan,” Mr. Barel wrote. “He reached the conclusion that Sharon is serious.”

In 2002, President Bush was widely criticized throughout the Arab world for calling Mr. Sharon a “man of peace.”

Mr. Mubarak also made an unusual foray yesterday in the Palestinian presidential election campaign, helping the candidacy of Mahmoud Abbas, the chairman of the Palestinian Liberation Organization.

The Egyptian president criticized Fatah militant Marwan Barghouti for his decision to enter the race from an Israeli prison, where he is serving two successive life sentences.

The decision, Mr. Mubarak warned, is liable to fracture the Palestinian public.

“We call on the Palestinian public to preserve their unity, and not involve itself in internal disagreements,” Mr. Mubarak said.

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