CAIRO - If cartoons in the Egyptian press are a measure of urgent problems, then it has to be concluded that the Palestinian problem has dropped way down on Cairo's political hit parade. Only one in five political cartoons - in a random survey carried out in the course of a week - dealt with the Palestinian question or portrayed Prime Minister Ariel Sharon as the wicked Jew or showed him bearing a swastika. The Palestinian issue carries the same status in the editorial columns and analysis pieces. "Egypt has grown tired of dealing with the Palestinians," explains the editor of a leading paper here. "It has grown tired of Sharon and of the Israelis, too. In any event there is no hope for a true solution in the foreseeable future. It's best to deal with things over which we have control."
Nevertheless, the Egyptian government is relentlessly pursuing its efforts to achieve another hudna, or at least to resolve the dispute between Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) and Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat. Senior Egyptian officials met in the past week with a representative of the Hamas organization in Lebanon and held long talks with representatives of Islamic Jihad in Gaza and with the leadership of the PA in order to see if there is any prospect of advancing along the path of the cease-fire. Egypt seems to be the only country still engaged in these efforts. According to senior officials in the Egyptian government, it's difficult these days to find an attentive ear even in Washington, where the administration is totally involved in Iraq, while the European countries have nothing to offer.
Why Egypt? "We view the Palestinian question through Arab - and above all, Egyptian - eyes. We cannot afford a situation in which extreme organizations, especially religious ones, will set the tone in the Middle East," a senior Egyptian figure explains. "Hezbollah is now dictating policy in Lebanon; in Iraq, terrorist organizations, be they religious or secular, are liable to determine American policy toward Iraq; Bin Laden activists in Muslim countries have acquired strategic power; and in Palestine awareness is growing that Hamas and Islamic Jihad are the only freedom fighters. This is a dangerous state of affairs, which is liable to place the political monopoly in their hands." According to the Egyptian official, the fact that Israel declared war on Hamas shows that from the organization's point of view it is moving in the right direction to take the whole Palestinian national jackpot.
The Israeli mistake, the Egyptians say, is that Israel is turning the war against Hamas into a war against all the institutions of the PA. It is severing diplomatic contacts with the PA and is not delivering the kinds of goods that Abu Mazen can use to offset the influence of Hamas (or of Yasser Arafat). The Israeli defense minister is reiterating the intention to oust Arafat, as though this is the solution to the problem of Hamas and Islamic Jihad, and the Palestinian population has no source of hope. "One possible track is to restore Hamas to its natural size: an organization that is not only opposed to the peace process with Israel but is also harming Palestinian interests," says the senior Egyptian.
Herein lies the difference between the Israeli perception and that of Egypt - or of the entire Arab world - to the struggle against terrorist organizations such as Hamas. Hamas is not a strategic threat to Israel; it is not endangering the state's existence. However, if it wins in its battle for policy against the PA, it will pose a strategic threat to Arab states that suffer from the activity of extremist organizations and movements on their soil. "We don't need the return of the slogan that says the solution lies in religion, as Hezbollah tried to put forward, and that Hamas will undoubtedly put forward if it wins against the PA, and we still don't know what kind of religious war will be fomented in Iraq," the Egyptian official explains.
This is the backdrop to the Egyptian aspiration to bring about the renewal of the cease-fire with the Palestinian organizations and to the tremendous effort that is being invested in this, despite the collapse of the previous hudna. On the face of it, this is an aspiration whose framework is both narrow and temporary, and it cannot, even in the Egyptian perception, advance the political process significantly, especially because of Cairo's view that at the moment there is no Israeli or American partner for the process. "But if the idea is to deprive the organization of its aura of national heroism, the monopoly on the armed struggle must be taken from it. We and you have no choice at the moment. We will have to make do even with a long-term hudna."
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