Olmert, Abbas to Meet Arab Leaders

By Scott Wilson
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, June 22, 2007

JERUSALEM, June 21 -- Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas will meet in Egypt on Monday for talks with two neighboring Arab leaders alarmed by Hamas's takeover of the Gaza Strip.

The meeting will be hosted by Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and attended by King Abdullah II of Jordan in the Sinai resort of Sharm el-Sheikh, Israeli and Palestinian officials said Thursday. Hamas leaders will be excluded from the four-way meeting, which is designed to show Arab and Israeli support for Abbas, a leader of the secular Fatah party, and other moderate Palestinians now running a government in the West Bank that has no apparent authority in Gaza.

The political separation of Gaza, an impoverished coastal strip that borders Egypt, from the West Bank, a more prosperous territory adjacent to Jordan, has troubled the leaders of these two neighbors -- the only Arab countries that have peace agreements with Israel -- over the potential consequences of instability on their borders.

Egypt's invitation represents a particular rebuke to Hamas, formally known as the Islamic Resistance Movement, whose government in Gaza has not been recognized by any foreign country. Mubarak sponsored the military training of hundreds of Fatah forces loyal to Abbas this year under a program now supported by a $40 million U.S. aid package.

But Mubarak's intelligence chief, Omar Suleiman, also spent months as the primary mediator between the Palestinian parties, only to see Hamas fighters fire on the Egyptian diplomatic mission in Gaza during their takeover. Egypt has since transferred its ambassador to the Palestinian Authority to the West Bank, withdrawn its security delegation from Gaza and effectively sealed its border with the strip.

Hamas is an offshoot of Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood, a 79-year-old Islamic political movement and Mubarak's chief opposition. Although Israeli analysts say Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood operate independently, Arab analysts say Mubarak must be careful not to inflame Islamic activists in his own country as he deals with Hamas.

"He's worried about his regime -- he doesn't like the Islamists, period," said Saad Eddin Ibrahim, an Egyptian sociologist and democracy activist. "He can't try a moderate approach to Hamas when he also doesn't with his own Islamist problem."

Mubarak's most pressing short-term concern is Egypt's roughly eight-mile border with Gaza, patrolled by Israeli forces until they withdrew from Gaza in the fall of 2005. Egypt is limited in how many troops it can deploy along the frontier -- a prime weapons-smuggling route into Gaza -- under the terms of the 1978 Camp David peace accords with Israel.

Palestinians in Gaza, hemmed in by Israeli-controlled passages and security fences, have pushed over the barrier and flooded into the Sinai by the thousands before. Another such exodus could be far larger and more chaotic, Israeli and Palestinian analysts say, if humanitarian conditions continue to deteriorate for the 1.4 million Palestinians who live in the strip.

Jordan's Abdullah also faces a potential problem arising from Gaza's separation from the West Bank. Some Israeli leaders have said Jordan, most of whose residents are of Palestinian descent, should become the Palestinian state.

In the days since Hamas's takeover of Gaza, Israeli officials have called for Jordan to consider a "confederation" with parts of the West Bank. Jordan's Hashemite royal family, destabilized in the past by Palestinian political groups, has long dismissed the idea.

Olmert has called Abbas's break from Hamas, an armed movement that does not recognize Israel's right to exist, a new opportunity to begin negotiations toward the creation of a Palestinian state.

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