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Egyptian turmoil complicates Israeli-Palestinian peace talks

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Protesters are again filling Cairo's Tahrir Square in what is expected to be the climax of the recent anti-Mubarak movement. Elizabeth Palmer reports from a nearby hotel overlooking the Tahrir Square.

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Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, February 4, 2011; 2:24 PM

The uprising in Egypt threatens to further derail the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, with the United States and other key actors distracted and no one sure whether President Hosni Mubarak's successor will maintain Egypt's mediating role, diplomats and analysts said.

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Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and senior representatives of the Quartet of Middle East peacemakers - the European Union, Russia, the United Nations and the United States - are scheduled to meet in Munich Saturday to consider what can be done to revive the moribund process.

Former British prime minister and Quartet representative Tony Blair announced Friday that Israel had agreed to revive talks on developing a gas field off the Gaza Strip, allow construction materials for sanitation and water treatment plants to enter Gaza and take other steps to improve Palestinian infrastructure. Blair, in a statement, noted that "agreement to all this is not the same as implementation."

It remains to be seen whether those steps will be enough to bring the Palestinians back to the table. Israel may be too worried about the dramatically shifting security situation in the region to offer significant concessions, analysts say.

"For the foreseeable future, you could hang a 'Closed for the Season' sign [on] the prospects" of an accord, said Aaron David Miller, a former State Department peace negotiator, in a conference call sponsored by the Israel Project.

The peace talks, launched by the Obama administration in Washington in September, broke down within weeks over Israel's decision not to extend a 10-month partial moratorium on settlement construction.

Even before the crisis in Egypt, analysts were predicting a long hiatus in the talks because of the fire storm over the so-called "Palestine Papers" released last month by the al-Jazeera network. The documents revealed that Palestinian negotiators had discussed significant concessions with the Israelis over the past decade without acknowledging publicly how far they were willing to go.

Egypt was the first Arab state to sign a peace treaty with Israel, and Mubarak's government has played a major role in Israeli-Palestinian peace talks. With one-third of the Arab world's population, Egypt lends crucial credibility to Palestinian participation in the talks. Egypt also has quietly supported Israel's blockade of Gaza, which is governed by the Islamist Hamas movement, which the United States and Israel consider a terrorist organization.

Egypt's government is preoccupied at the moment trying to stay in power. The question is whether the government that succeeds it - either after scheduled September elections, or sometime before that - will continue Mubarak's regional policies.

The peace process "will be dead if we don't have a player in Egypt who wants to play along," said one European diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Miller said it was unlikely that Egypt's new leaders would tear up the peace treaty with Israel. But a government emerging from free elections would probably include a more diverse range of voices, including those of the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood, he said.

"By definition, those views, if accurately reflected in governance and politics, would lead to a much narrower space for the United States on any number of issues...not to mention, of course, how much less space and patience there is going to be for Israeli actions and policies," he said.


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