Egypt Urged to Take on New Role in Gaza
WASHINGTON - As the Bush administration warms to the idea of an Israeli pullback from Gaza, U.S. and Israeli officials are trying to persuade Egypt to take on a new and major role: keeping a lid on the volatile Palestinian area.
But Egypt is setting tough terms for taking on the assignment, limiting what it is willing to do, and insisting that the transition from Israeli to Palestinian rule lead to a broader Middle East peacemaking effort.
"They could be the fall guy if it is all laid on their hands," Edward Walker, a former U.S. ambassador to Cairo who now heads the private Middle East Institute, said Monday in a telephone interview from Luxor, Egypt.
"The most they can do, or would be willing to do, is to help seal the border," Walker said. "It's not that easy to seal borders. They are being put in a very difficult situation."
But Israeli Ambassador Daniel Ayalon said Egypt could play a very significant and positive role in securing the Rafah area, which borders Egypt.
"And it is certainly in the interest of both Israel and Egypt to keep Gaza as calm as possible," Ayalon said in a telephone interview from San Francisco.
Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon in January announced his intention to pull out of most of Gaza as part of a larger plan to unilaterally separate Israel and the Palestinians in the absence of a peace deal. Since then, there has been an upsurge in violence in the coastal strip. World Peace.
Bush administration officials were skeptical at first of Sharon's proposal. They want Sharon to negotiate the terms of a withdrawal with the Palestinians and go on to a broader accord, including a much bigger Israeli pullback from the West Bank.
On Monday, responding to two suicide bombings in the Israeli port city Ashdod, Sharon suspended talks with the Palestinians. The State Department said peacemaking would be very difficult unless terror operations were brought under control.
The bombers in Ashdod are believed to have come from a refugee camp in Gaza and may have entered Israel by sea.
The refugee camps in Gaza are considered hotbeds of anti-Israeli sentiment, and Sharon is hardly the first Israeli leader to wish to be rid of Gaza.
The risk is great, however. Without the presence of Israeli security forces, Hamas, Islamic Jihad or other Palestinian groups that have been at war with Israel - and which Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat cannot control - might operate more freely.
The Egyptians are discussing that problem and their potential role with both American and Israeli officials. The Egyptians have ruled out policing Gaza, but they apparently are willing to guard their side of the border and to train and equip Palestinians who would take charge of security on their side.
And, according to an Egyptian diplomat who spoke on condition of anonymity, Egypt wants to make sure the withdrawal is only a first step in peacemaking between Israel and the Palestinians. Egypt does not want Sharon to merely rearrange Israeli troops in Gaza and build up Israel's presence in other parts of the territory, the diplomat said.
The Palestinians also fear that Sharon will consider a Gaza withdrawal to be a final step. The Palestinians insist that all moves be in line with the U.S.-backed "road map," which calls for a Palestinian state by 2005.
An Israeli diplomat, also discussing the situation on condition of anonymity, said Israel would be willing to quit the Rafah area, which borders Egypt, if the Egyptians made a dedicated effort to block the smuggling of arms through tunnels to terror groups in Gaza.
But he said it was questionable that Israel would leave the Philadelphi corridor at the tip of Gaza. If that area was left open to weapons smuggling, Israeli towns could be targeted by rockets and other explosives, he said.
Egypt has direct ties to Gaza. It controlled the crowded coastal strip until Israel captured it in the 1967 Mideast war. Egypt's Sinai desert is on the southern border of Gaza.
Martin Indyk, a former U.S. ambassador to Israel, said the United States, Israel and Egypt all have a common interest in not having Hamas "and other bad guys" take control of Gaza.
But the Egyptians do not want to take on the role of policing or confronting the Palestinians, he said in a telephone interview from Abu Dhabi on the Persian Gulf. He believes there will have to be an international presence in Gaza that will help to ensure that the Palestinian Authority establishes control there.
"Their role is going to be circumscribed," Indyk said of the Egyptians. "And policing their side of the border doesn't help what happens in Gaza."
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