Alain Navarro
Agence France Presse (AFP)
June 20, 2008 - 3:15pm

CAIRO - Egypt is firmly back in the diplomatic saddle after having played the central role of mediator in securing a truce between Israel and the Palestinian Islamist movement Hamas, analysts say.

After months of talks, it was Cairo that announced the agreement between Israel and the Palestinians on Tuesday.

Hours before the truce was to be implemented at 0300 GMT on Thursday, Israel, which blacklists Hamas as a terror group, maintained a cautious tone.

Egyptian mediators worked for months to secure a pact to halt the violence in and around Gaza that has seen most of the 515 people killed in fighting since the revival of Israeli-Palestinian peace talks in November.

“Only Egypt can speak to all parties, our role was very important in achieving this first step,” Mohammad Bassiouni, president of parliament’s foreign affairs commission for national security, told AFP.

Bassiouni, a former ambassador to Israel, believes the truce is just the beginning of the revival of Egypt’s role as a key regional player.

“This is not the end... our agenda is full as far as peace in the region is concerned,” he told AFP.

Egypt’s powerful intelligence chief Omar Suleiman, chief architect of the Israel-Hamas truce, has kept silent about the ceasefire and any details of the agreement.

But in Cairo, Jerusalem, Gaza City and the West Bank town of Ramallah, it is well known that Suleiman, through his movements, travels, telephone calls and meetings was the one who pushed the agreement through.

It was also Suleiman who, since the outbreak of the Palestinian uprising in 2000, negotiated three truce deals between Israel and different Palestinian factions, in 2001, 2003 and 2005.

“Omar Suleiman was at the forefront, but Egypt as a country played the main role after several failures,” said Imad Gad, researcher at the Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies.

For Antoine Basbous, who heads the Observatory of Arab Countries (OPA) in Paris, Egypt has regained a grip on the region after having spent time on the sidelines of Middle East affairs.

“Egypt has taken a regional and international role that it should never have lost,” he said.

A moderate US ally (although on bad terms with the current administration in Washington), the Arab world’s largest country with a population of 80 million has seen its regional influence fade to powerhouse Saudi Arabia.

Hamas’ takeover of Gaza a year ago, unforeseen by Egypt, revealed Cairo’s weakness in exercising its influence in a territory which it administered until Israel’s massive defeat of the Arabs in the 1967 Middle East war.

To pressure Cairo, Hamas destroyed part of the border between Gaza and Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula, allowing hundreds of thousands of Palestinians to pour into the country.

“The danger was at its door, with the risk of an Islamist spread, Egypt was forced to renew dialogue with Hamas without abandoning [President Mahmoud Abbas’] Fateh Party,” Gad said.

Bassiouni said that as of next week, Egypt would host several Palestinian factions including Fateh, Hamas and smaller hardline groups.

“There won’t be a Palestinian state without the unity of the Palestinian people. This will be difficult but we will pursue our efforts,” under the auspices of the Arab League, Bassiouni said.

He said Egypt would work immediately for the release of Palestinian prisoners in exchange for Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit who was captured by Palestinian fighters including Hamas in 2006.


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