Bbc News (Interview)
February 8, 2008 - 7:43pm

Text of report by Italian leading privately-owned centre-left newspaper La Repubblica, on 31 January

[Interview with Egyptian President Husni Mubarak by Nicola Lombardozzi and Alix Van Buren in Cairo on 30 January: "'Israel Will Not Offload Gaza On to Us'"]

Cairo - "Listen to me carefully." The Egyptian leader's voice rose: "Gaza is not part of Egypt, nor will it ever be a part of Egypt." Then he got tough: "I hear talk of a proposal to turn the Strip into an extension of the Sinai peninsula, of offloading responsibility for it onto Egypt, but what I say to Israel is this: Its plan is nothing but a dream, and I would add that I do not accept faits accomplis." He sighed: "Today that border is going to be closed. Right now, as we speak, Egyptian forces are at work."

Husni Mubarak took up a pencil and drew three intersecting straight lines on a sheet of paper: "There, look: this is the point where Egypt, Gaza and Israel meet. Some people in Israel are talking about creating an 'expanded' Gaza Strip, building a part of the Sinai peninsula into it via a trade in land between Egypt, Israel, and the Palestinians. Well, my answer is this: Let them trade in shoes and clothes but not in land, truly not in land."

In the silence of the president's study on the first floor [second floor in US usage] of the Qasr al-Itihadiya, possibly the best defended building in Cairo, in a place that is physically close by only a few miles to the border with Gaza, a hypothesis is being mooted that is very inconvenient for the powers in the region: Barring last-minute mediation, Israel's ongoing blockade of the Strip and the irreconcilable rivalry between Fatah and Hamas are going to prevent a return to the method adopted for monitoring the border that was negotiated after Israeli withdrew from Gaza in 2005 and that was destroyed by the Palestinian exodus on "black Tuesday." This, unless there is a margin for manoeuvre in the negotiations that began yesterday between the Palestinian [National] Authority [PNA] and Hamas delegations, whom the Egyptian leader urgently summoned to Cairo.

[La Repubblica] Mr President, all attempts at reconciliation have failed so far. How can you nurture any hope now?

[Mubarak] We must not harbour any illusions. It will be a long and complex negotiation. The rift is truly discouraging. It undermines the Palestinian cause, and it worsens the suffering of a people still under occupation. But another fact emerges from all of this: The strangulation of Gaza that Israel has put in place to try to weaken Hamas has produced a contrary effect. Hamas has been strengthened by it. There you have it, that is Israel's big mistake.

[La Repubblica] What are the consequences for Egypt? Is proximity with an area under Islamist control a threat to your country's security?

[Mubarak] What happened in Gaza last June is important for us in terms of the implications that it has for the Palestinian people. Where Egypt's national security is concerned, we are perfectly capable of defending ourselves. We are deeply aware of the suffering in Gaza, and sure enough, I have called on Israel to resume supplies to the Strip. We, for our part, are sending food and medical supplies from Egypt. But I will not allow new crises to be fomented at the Rafah border crossing, or a hail of stones to be thrown at the Egyptian security forces. Nor, I repeat, will I allow Israel, the occupying power, to offload its responsibilities towards Gaza, which is an occupied territory.

[La Repubblica] President Bush came to the Middle East as a peace broker. Can he play a role in defusing the crisis?

[Mubarak] A peace broker? I would not call him that. Of course, he came here to promote an accord, to assess the results of the Annapolis summit, in an attempt to implement his personal vision of two states. But from the United States I hear it being said and repeated that he is not going to intervene in the negotiations on the final issues, which are the most sensitive ones. It is almost as though he had forgotten the lesson of Camp David: President Al- Sadat and Prime Minister Begin would never have achieved an accord if Carter had not spurred them on.

[La Repubblica] Mr President, what are the expectations in the wake of Annapolis?

[Mubarak] Annapolis broke the seven-year deadlock in the peace process. What is needed now is pressure on the two sides both from the United States and from the Quartet to get them to proceed in earnest. Egypt will play its part thanks to our ties with both the Palestinians and the Israelis. But if you are asking me whether I believe in a solution before the end of the year or not, well, I hope so, with all my heart. It is an achievable goal, because it is possible to build on what was achieved in Taba back in 2001. Yet the Palestinian question has been a history of missed opportunities since 1948. I hope that it will not slip out of our grasp again this time, as it has done in the past. The negotiations must now go on. Rabin used to say: Violence and negotiations must be addressed simultaneously.

[La Repubblica] There is an additional problem, which some people call Iran's interference in Middle Eastern affairs. Did Bush ask you to forge a common front against Tehran?

[Mubarak] This is not the time for resorting to threats or to the use of force: That would serve solely to set the Gulf, the Middle East, and the whole world on fire. What is needed, rather, are dialogue and diplomacy. The US intelligence report on Iran's nuclear ambitions lends itself to opposing interpretations, but in any case it paves the way for diplomacy. Greater transparency is needed on Iran's part, and greater flexibility is needed on the part of the international community.

[La Repubblica] Yet Egypt has now chosen to move down the path of nuclear energy. Is that, too, a reaction to Iran's programme?

[Mubarak] No, it is not. It is for purely economic reasons based on the need to diversify sources and to be certain of supplies. We are moving simultaneously in the field of renewable energy sources, such as solar energy and wind power, in harmony with the EU's goals. But remember, the peaceful use of nuclear energy is a right guaranteed to all the signatories to the Non-Proliferation Treaty. And we are offering total transparency and cooperation to the IAEA [International Atomic Energy Agency].

[La Repubblica] Yet fully 13 Sunni Arab countries have announced the transition to nuclear energy in the space of a single year. Is a race to rearm looming on the horizon?

[Mubarak] Please do not talk about Sunni countries. That adjective suggests a response to Iran's programme on those countries' part, and that is false. As I was saying, it is a matter of the peaceful use of nuclear power.

[La Repubblica] We have recently seen the Arab countries making overtures towards Iran. People are talking about the resumption of diplomatic ties between Egypt and Tehran after fully 30 years. Is it going to happen?

[Mubarak] Our contacts with Iran are ongoing despite Tehran's breaking off ties back in 1979, after Egypt made peace with Israel. There are various issues on the table, but once they have been resolved, we are prepared to establish diplomatic relations once again.

[La Repubblica] Does that mean that Iran's influence today is a reality that the world needs to take into account?

[Mubarak] I would prefer not to talk of influence so much as of the role and contribution of the countries in the region to peace, to security, and to stability. Iran is one of the most important countries in the region. It can play a positive and constructive role in the stability of the Gulf and of the Middle East. [Mubarak ends]

Before taking his leave of us, the Egyptian leader smiled - "I hope to see you again soon, in Italy!" - voicing the hope that he will be able to confirm a visit (postponed in the wake of the [Italian] government crisis) designed to seal a strategic accord between Egypt and Italy.

Outside the door, the mirrors reflected the profile of the region's new leading players: A composed and unruffled Iranian delegation stood waiting.

Originally published by La Repubblica, Rome, in Italian 31 Jan 08.


American Task Force on Palestine - 1634 Eye St. NW, Suite 725, Washington DC 20006 - Telephone: 202-262-0017