"The situation that has developed in the Gaza Strip in recent months has led to Egypt in practice having a border with Iran," Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak told a senior European diplomat about three weeks ago.

According to Haaretz's source, who requested anonymity, Mubarak told the diplomat he was concerned over Iran's growing influence in the region. He also compared the situation in Lebanon to that in Gaza, saying that "in both places, the problems and the crises stem from the growing influence of Iran."

Israeli government officials have repeatedly said that Hamas' breach of the Gaza-Egypt border in January sparked a significant change in Egypt's approach to the situation in Gaza, and Cairo is now taking problems such as arms smuggling over this border much more seriously. This process was bolstered after Hamas fired an Iranian Grad rocket at Ashkelon, which Egypt viewed as proof of Iran's penetration of the Strip.

The political crisis in Lebanon is also worrying Mubarak, who told the European diplomat that he was pessimistic about the chances of a breakthrough that would finally enable Lebanon to elect a new president. The diplomat's impression was that Mubarak and other Arab leaders believe Lebanon's ongoing presidential stalemate strengthens the Iran-Syria-Hezbollah axis and weakens the moderates.

The Lebanese crisis is the main reason why many Arab countries, led by Egypt and Saudi Arabia, have lowered the level of their participation at this weekend's Arab summit in Damascus. According to reports reaching the Israeli Foreign Ministry, Mubarak is furious over Syria's efforts to prevent a resolution of this crisis, as well as its increasingly close ties with Iran.

Israel views the Arab summit as a critical test of the Syrian-Iranian alliance, with the big question being whether the absence of so many Arab leaders will cause Syria's Bashar Assad to rethink his position. Currently, however, Israel's assessment is that Assad has neither the desire nor the ability to break away from Iran. As an example of the strength of this alliance, Israeli officials cite reports by foreign diplomats who visited Damascus and were stunned to see pictures of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah in Assad's office.

Western diplomats told Haaretz that the Gulf states share Israel's assessment: They, too, believe Syrian-Iranian ties have reached the point of no return.

"In the Gulf, they believe that it is currently impossible to sever the ties between these two countries," said one.

The diplomats said the Arab countries are very worried by Iran's influence in the region, but are unwilling to go public with their concerns for fear of what Iran might do to them. Moreover, Arab leaders believe that their publics generally support Iran and its positions, so coming out against Iran would undermine their own popularity.

One of the few exceptions to this rule has been the Lebanese crisis, where Saudi Arabia has come out publicly against Syria.

Meanwhile, Lebanon announced yesterday that it, too, would boycott the Arab summit, to protest Syria's ongoing interference in its affairs. Mubarak and Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah had earlier announced that they would not attend, though they will send lower-level officials. However, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas will be attending.