- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 15, 2005

Egypt is ready to deploy up to three full battalions to its border with Israel and a potential Palestinian state in Gaza as part of a push for a comprehensive peace deal, Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit said yesterday.

Mr. Gheit, who meets today with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and other senior U.S. officials, cautioned that new Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas must be given the time and resources to get the security situation under control.

Ordinary Palestinians, he told editors and reporters at The Washington Times, must quickly see that Israel’s withdrawal from Gaza and some settlements in the West Bank is part of a larger move toward political independence and improved living standards.

“The Palestinian population has to feel there are dividends coming for the cease-fire we now have in place,” Mr. Gheit said.

In a wide-ranging and at times personal interview, Mr. Gheit said Egypt and other leading Arab countries face major challenges — but that too much pressure too soon from the West to change could backfire.

• On Iran, he embraced a European drive to negotiate over the country’s suspected nuclear programs, saying a harder line — favored by some in the U.S. government — would only boost domestic support for Iran’s religious rulers.

“We have to be careful with Iran. It is a very proud nation,” he said. “If we decide on a course of confrontation through the [U.N.] Security Council or some other such actions, it could dramatically affect the stability of the region.”

• He said Egypt has put differences over the U.S.-led war in Iraq in the past, and that the priorities now must be to create an inclusive Iraqi government and build up the country’s army and security forces to hasten the day when U.S. and other international forces can withdraw.

• Egypt welcomes President Bush’s call for political reform in the region, Mr. Gheit said, including a pointed reference to Cairo in Mr. Bush’s State of the Union speech last month. But he said democracy must be accompanied by economic reforms and a sensitivity to culturally conservative Muslim and Arab societies confronting Western ideas and freedoms.

“We in Egypt do not believe in using the cure of shock treatment in these matters,” he said. “… We have to do these things at a pace by which they can be handled by the society.”

• He praised the recent peace deal in neighboring Sudan, but warned against simplifying the ethnic and economic clashes in Darfur and elsewhere in the country. Sanctions against the regime in Khartoum, he said, could easily backfire.

“If we put too much pressure on Sudan at this moment, it will explode,” he said.

• He defended Egypt’s nuclear programs, saying Cairo is cooperating with international inspectors and many of the programs recently flagged in press accounts as suspicious dated back two decades or more.

Agence France-Presse, citing an unnamed senior diplomat close to the Vienna-based International Atomic Energy Agency, reported yesterday that IAEA officials have concluded that Egypt repeatedly failed to disclose nuclear materials and programs, but that the violations appeared to be minor and there was no evidence Egypt was seeking nuclear weapons.

Egypt has been a major catalyst behind efforts to boost Israeli-Palestinian talks in the months since the death of longtime Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.

Mr. Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon agreed to a cease-fire ending four years of violence at a summit in the Egyptian resort of Sharm el Sheik last week.

Mr. Gheit, meeting with Israeli Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom, said at the time Egypt was ready to deploy a 750-strong battalion of border guards along a 10-mile stretch of border with Israel. The deployment would be the first of its kind since the withdrawal of Israeli forces from the Sinai in the late 1970s as part of the Camp David accords.

Mr. Gheit yesterday went considerably further, saying Egypt could supply another two full battalions along a 150-mile stretch of desert dividing Egypt from Israel and the proposed Palestinian state.

He said the porous border has been a security headache for Cairo, with drug smugglers and human traffickers linked to European supply networks passing freely over the border.

Israeli and Egyptian defense officials are still negotiating the deployments, “but that is what we fully intend to do,” he said.

The Egyptian diplomat said the Israeli-Palestinian security talks must quickly link up with the larger U.S.-backed “road map” for a comprehensive peace and an independent Palestine.

While the Palestinian problem is the “core and crux” of the problem, Mr. Gheit said the Israel-Syria dispute and the instability in Lebanon also must be addressed.

Israel has so far rejected Syrian feelers, supported strongly by Cairo, to resume talks over the Golan Heights, but “we cannot just leave Syria and Lebanon out of the picture,” he said.

Mr. Gheit said “nobody rejects” President Bush’s recent calls for greater social and political reform in the region, but again he cautioned that moving too fast could only benefit Islamist forces and other radical groups.

Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak has dominated political life since taking office in 1981, and is expected to run for and win a fifth six-year term later this year.

Human rights groups and Egyptian democracy activists have criticized the government’s slow movement toward reform, citing most recently the Jan. 31 arrest of opposition lawmaker Ayman Nur. He was detained on fraud charges just days after he met with a U.S. pro-democracy delegation headed by former Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright.

Mr. Gheit said outsiders and non-Arabic speakers have failed to pick up on a new openness in Egypt’s press and political arena, including a very public debate on reforming the constitution.

“There is a real debate going on in our country, and you can see it in the media and on our TV,” he said.

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