- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 1, 2004

TEL AVIV — Prime Minister Ariel Sharon is getting crucial support from Egypt for his Gaza Strip withdrawal proposal at a time when the Israeli prime minister is having difficulty mustering support for the initiative in his own Cabinet.

Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak — who for years refused to speak with Mr. Sharon — called the Israeli prime minister Monday to offer assistance with the pullback plan, according to Mr. Sharon’s office. The Israeli-Egyptian dialogue on the Gaza Strip will continue Monday when Israeli Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom travels to Cairo.

The Egyptians plan to send as many as 200 security advisers to the Gaza Strip this month, according to Israel’s Ha’aretz newspaper, which cited an Egyptian news agency. In an April interview with The Washington Times, Mr. Mubarak offered to help train Palestinian policemen to maintain stability in the Gaza Strip after an Israeli pullback.

“We want to hear what they have to say and what they have to offer. Egypt is playing a constructive role, from our point of view,” said an Israeli foreign ministry official.

“We are very much appreciative of that role, but I see it through the prism of realpolitik rather than a love of Zion.”

The sides also are expected to discuss beefed-up security on the Gaza-Egyptian border. Israelis, in the past, have criticized Egypt for failing to catch weapons dealers who smuggle arms into the Gaza Strip through tunnels.

Ha’aretz reported that the Egyptians have suggested a deal to Israel that would secure freedom of movement for Yasser Arafat in return for the Palestinian leader’s agreeing to cede powers to deputies.

That would enable Mr. Arafat, who hasn’t left his Ramallah headquarters in more than two years, to travel to the Gaza Strip. But the Israeli foreign ministry official said Israel opposes allowing Mr. Arafat to return to the Gaza Strip.

The prospect of a detente with Egypt gives Mr. Sharon more leverage to persuade wavering leaders of his Likud Party — including Mr. Shalom — to support his plan to abandon about 20 Jewish settlements and most of the military bases in the Gaza Strip.

Mr. Mubarak seems to be an unlikely ally for Mr. Sharon, who earlier this week postponed a Cabinet vote on his disengagement plan after realizing it would be defeated. And on Monday, the prime minister came under withering criticism at a meeting with lawmakers from his Likud Party.

Egypt recalled its ambassador to Israel shortly after the outbreak of the Palestinian uprising 31/2 years ago. Mr. Sharon had been vilified as a brutal killer in the Egyptian press, but after being re-elected last year, he received a congratulatory phone call from Mr. Mubarak, who conceded that he no longer could ignore the Israeli leader.

With the prospect of an Israeli withdrawal from the Gaza Strip, Egypt is worried that Hamas — the most popular political movement in the coastal strip — will strengthen ties with its Egyptian ideological forerunner, the Muslim Brotherhood, analysts said.

The Gaza Strip is familiar territory for the Egyptians, who ruled the area between the 1948 and 1967 Arab-Israeli wars.

Egyptian involvement also might require Mr. Sharon to back away from his original plan for a unilateral disengagement from the Gaza Strip.

“It’s clear that without coordination with parties surrounding us, this move won’t be possible,” said Matan Vilnai, a former army deputy chief of staff who is a member of the opposition Labor Party.

Taking a high-profile role in the Gaza Strip would improve Egypt’s standing in the United States and could ease pressures on Mr. Mubarak to move forward with democratic reforms. At the same time, filling in the security vacuum left by Israel would allow Egypt to reassert its central role in Middle East peacemaking.

“It’s a important development and has far-reaching potential,” said Yossi Alpher, a co-editor of a Web site on Israeli-Palestinian affairs called Bitterlemons.org.

“Mubarak has been very critical of Sharon, and now, he is talking to him once or twice a week. The Egyptian commitment is unprecedented in 37 years since they left Gaza,” said Mr. Alpher, a former director of Tel Aviv University’s Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies.

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