Israel pinning hopes for Hamas deal in Gaza on Egypt intel chief
Omar Suleiman behind success of last truce, sees Hamas as an extension of despised Muslim Brotherhood.
European leaders have flocked to Israel in support of the Israeli declared cease-fire that Hamas signed onto in a dramatic announcement a day later.
But Israel is more focused on Egyptian intelligence head and the right hand-man of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, Minister Omar Suleiman, than it is on the international community.
Suleiman was responsible for the relative success of the tahadiya (cease-fire) agreement, which granted the southern communities six months of quiet until December 19, 2008.
However, he was unable to bridge the gaps between Israel and Hamas in the matter of Gilad Shalit's release. He was also unable to influence Yasser Arafat and Israel to stop the violent cycle of the second intifada and prevent the death of the Oslo Accord.
Nevertheless, Israel now hopes that the Egyptian general will be able to help it work out an "arrangement" with Hamas, the latest whitewashed word generated by the war in Gaza and intended to help Israel appear as one who is not, perish the thought, negotiating with those it defines as a terrorist organization.
Omar Suleiman is well known to dozens of senior Israeli intelligence officials, Israel Defense Forces officers, defense establishment officials, prime ministers and ministers. Since his appointment in 1993 as head of the Egyptian General Intelligence Services, he has maintained steady ties with most of the heads of the Israeli secret service: the Mossad, the Shin Bet Security Service and military intelligence. Sometimes the ties touched on personal matters, such as when Suleiman would tell Shabtai Shavit, a former Mossad chief, about his family and how proud he is of his three children and of his grandchildren.
Yet these good relations do not mean that the Egyptian general's agenda necessarily corresponds to Israel's.
"You can't forget that first and foremost he is an Egyptian patriot," said a former senior Israeli intelligence official who met him several times, "and his primary task, perhaps his only one, is to defend the regime and protect the life of the president."
On June 26, 1995, this role was put to the test when he rode in the back seat with Mubarak on their way to a meeting of the Organization of African Unity. At 8:15 A.M., as the Egyptian president's motorcade made its way from the Addis Ababa airport to the city center, there was heavy fire on the motorcade from an ambush. A day earlier, Suleiman had insisted that the president's armored Mercedes also be flown to the Ethiopian capital. This insistence saved Mubarak's life and the shared horrific experience deepened the friendship between the two.
Following the attempted assassination, Suleiman ordered his people to work feverishly and with no legal or moral restraints, which in any case are fairly weak in Egypt, against Jama'a Islamiya, the organization that carried out the assassination attempt. Thousands of members of the radical Muslim organizations, plus their families and relatives, were arrested and many of them were tortured. The iron fist of Omar Suleiman and the Egyptian intelligence eliminated Islamic terrorism within a short time.
Suleiman was born in 1935 in Qena, in southern Egypt, a city known as a stronghold of Islamic fundamentalism. Journalist Mary Anne Weaver wrote five years ago in the American journal, The Atlantic, that in Qena there are only two routes to upward mobility: become a soldier or a sheikh. Suleiman chose the former.
At the age of 19 he let Qena and attended Egypt's prestigious Military Academy in Cairo. Since then, for over 50 years, he has been a professional and disciplined soldier. In the 1960s, he was sent to the Soviet Union for advanced training. Details of his military service and promotion are obscure.
"He never spoke to us about his military service or about his experiences in the wars against us. We saw that he avoided this and we didn't press him," recalled a senior intelligence official.
Among his Israeli contacts there is some disagreement over where he served. One thought he was in the engineering corps, another thought artillery and a third thought the armored corps. In 1991, he was promoted to the position of commander of military intelligence and two years later was appointed to head the Egyptian General Intelligence Services (civilian). Later on he was promoted to the rank of minister without portfolio and cabinet member, a status that his predecessors did not enjoy.
Until a few years ago, the Egyptian public hardly knew Suleiman. Only after he stepped out from behind the scenes in the intelligence world and moved to the diplomatic stage has he become a familiar figure. His Israeli visitors said that in his new office in Cairo, there is alongside pictures of his predecessors a photo of him as well. This is not standard practice, and it is possible that it is a way of indicating that he does not consider his current position the end of the story for him. In recent years his name has even been circulated as a candidate to succeed Mubarak himself. Mubarak prefers to see his son Gamal succeed him, but if he concludes that such a process would encounter public opposition in Egypt, Suleiman's chances will improve.
Anyone who meets with Omar Suleiman is impressed by the respect inspired by his appearance, which does not lack some of the mannerisms of leadership.
"We met some years ago with CIA representatives in the lobby of a hotel," recalled an Israeli intelligence man, "and suddenly Omar made a 'v' figure with his fingers. One of his aides surfaced out of the blue and placed a cigar between his fingers."
He is carefully and elegantly dressed, soft-spoken and polite, but his Israeli and American colleagues have also seen another side of his personality.
"I won't forget," said an Israeli intelligence man, "how in one meeting at the beginning of the second intifada, he reprimanded and chided Arafat, when it became clear to him that Arafat did not heed his advice."
Suleiman's revenge was not long in coming. During Operation Defensive Shield in 2002, Arafat pleaded with Suleiman and asked that Egypt at the very least take some symbolic action that would express its displeasure. Suleiman did not respond and enabled Israel to strike at the Palestinian Authority at will until it nearly collapsed.
Nonetheless, even though he is a devout Muslim who often halts discussions with Israeli colleagues in order to pray, he bears intense scorn toward and despises the Muslim Brotherhood, whom he sees as the primary threat to Egypt. This is the worldview that spurred him to help the CIA and place at its disposal Egyptian interrogators who would help it interrogate Al-Qaida detainees. For that, the CIA is grateful and considers the Egyptian intelligence services an ally of equal importance as the Mossad.
This is also where he derives his attitude toward Hamas, which he sees as an extension of the Muslim Brotherhood. One person who has become aware of this is Mark Perry, the U.S. director of the Conflicts Forum, an international organization headed by former British intelligence official Alastair Crooke, who is attempting to push dialogue between the West and Islamic fundamentalist organizations such as Hamas and Hezbollah.
"Around two years ago, I met him at a lecture in a limited forum at a Washington research institute," recalled Perry, "and I asked him if Hamas, which won the elections, can be a stabilizing and positive factor in the Palestinian government. He answered me without hesitation, 'No. I know these people. They are the Muslim Brotherhood and they will not change. They are liars and the only thing they understand is force.'"
But Suleiman's hostility toward Islamic fundamentalism does not make him pro-Israel.
"He is not a fan of Israel," said a former senior American intelligence official, "but most Egyptians don't like Israel and accept it at most as a necessary evil."
The American journalist Patrick Tyler recently wrote in his book how CIA officials heard the Egyptian general make fun of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's fondness for food and his tendency to gain weight.
According to the testimony of Israeli intelligence officials, Suleiman has consistently adhered to a line advocating "a cold peace" and did not support deepening economic ties, even though he was involved behind the scenes in promoting the gas deal between the two countries. The beneficiary of that deal was businessman Yossi Maiman, thanks mostly to his partnership with Shabtai Shavit, who was well acquainted with Suleiman (Maiman and Shavit have since had a falling out over a financial dispute). Most Israelis praise Suleiman's wisdom and the strategic vision he is graced with, and also understand his motives. Both he and President Mubarak did not enjoy seeing Hamas being empowered on Egypt's doorstep, but also did not really want to stop the smuggling via the tunnels. The tunnels served as a geo-strategic tool for them when they mediated between Israeli and the Palestinians and primarily as a valve for releasing the pressure applied by the Islamic opposition in Egypt, which accuses the regime of standing idly by while Israel attacks the Palestinian people.
On the other hand, if one takes into account this same strategic vision, then presumably also General Suleiman is not shedding any tears over the blows Hamas has absorbed from the IDF.