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Egypt to Limit Ties With Israel but Keep Channels Open

Diplomacy: Cairo's move reflects pressures from below on Arab regimes for a response to Jewish state's military actions.

April 04, 2002|MICHAEL SLACKMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

CAIRO — The Egyptian government announced Wednesday that it will scale back contacts with Israel--but keep diplomatic channels open--to protest the Jewish state's military operations against Palestinians.

Egypt's decision, while falling far short of calls to sever all diplomatic ties with Israel, reflects growing pressure faced by Arab governments. Jordan and Egypt, the only two Arab nations to have signed peace treaties with the Jewish state, have in recent days used helmeted police and water cannons to disperse angry demonstrations.

In Egypt, most classes were canceled at Cairo University to discourage protests. Truckloads of riot police were on hand at the school's gates to head off any possible disturbance. One front-page newspaper story spoke of Israel's "Nazi-like atrocities" and ran a picture of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon with a swastika drawn over his head.

Amid this environment, President Hosni Mubarak opted for a show of anger while preserving the landmark peace treaty his country signed with Israel in 1979. Egypt has spoken with one of the few moderate voices in the region, pushing for peace since the start of the Palestinian intifada 18 months ago.

"The Cabinet decided to terminate or stop all contact between the two governments, except the diplomatic channels as they serve the Palestinian question and the overall question of peace in the area," said Nabil Osman, the government's chief spokesman.

Nevertheless, he added, "War is not an Egyptian option, simply because we have chosen peace."

Last week in Beirut, Arab leaders adopted an initiative that offered Israel security and recognition in return for its withdrawal to pre-1967 borders and other concessions. The summit was fractious, and its members also endorsed the Palestinian intifada, called for continuing the fight and labeled Israel a terrorist state. But the peace gesture, no matter how limited, was enough to put off some hard-liners.

As the Arab leaders were touting the proposal in Beirut, the militant Islamic group Hamas sent a suicide bomber into a hotel in the central Israeli coastal city of Netanya. The bomber killed 22 other people, including elderly men and women, who had come together to celebrate the Jewish Passover.

The attack opened the door to the latest crisis, with Israeli troops laying siege to Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat's headquarters and moving into Palestinian cities and towns. Israel says the operation is aimed at dismantling a terrorist infrastructure it says is responsible for a series of suicide bombings.

Since they left Beirut, Arab leaders have almost uniformly been silent. Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh said he was so disturbed by the poor show of support for the Palestinians--even rhetorical support--that he was boycotting all official contacts with his Arab counterparts.

Though the situation could easily change, officials and analysts said the silence reflected a struggle between competing sentiments. On the one side, there are feelings of unparalleled hatred for Israel, coupled with the desire to do something to prove that the Arab world is not impotent. This, however, is in contrast with the acceptance by many of the nations, even hard-line states, that for economic and political reasons, conventional war is not desirable.

Those competing attitudes are on display in Lebanon, where Syrian-backed Hezbollah fighters have stepped up cross-border attacks on Israeli troops and civilians. But even as Hezbollah struck, Syria rapidly redeployed about 20,000 troops it had stationed around Beirut, pulling them back to the Bekaa Valley, an act perceived as a sign that Syria is not interested in a direct confrontation with Israel.

"To open a second front, this I think is going too far," said Farid Khazen, a political science professor at American University in Beirut, who said Syria would like to step up the pressure without provoking a conflict.

"The problem that Hezbollah and Syria are facing today is they are not sure of Israel's threshold," Khazen said.

Independent of the Palestinian issue, most countries of the Arab world are facing serious economic, social and political challenges. Yet it is the Palestinian issue that dominates the agenda of the leadership. At the request of the Palestinian Authority, Arab foreign ministers are scheduled to meet in Cairo on Saturday to try to reconcile the desire to avoid war with the growing pressure to do something to at least appear to help the Palestinians.

In Egypt, officials say that Mubarak has been working the phones, consulting with regional and world leaders, quietly looking for some way out of the morass. Ultimately, he decided to take this half-step, a nod to the growing public pressure but also a signal to Israel, and the United States.

"The decision is to deal with an angry public and to send a signal to the Israelis that Sharon is taking them down a very serious road with very serious implications for everybody," said Abdel Moneim Said, director of the Al Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies in Cairo.

Egypt withdrew its ambassador from Tel Aviv in November 2000 to protest Israel's initial handling of the Palestinian uprising against Israeli occupation. Israel has kept its ambassador in Cairo.

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