The Arab Response / Key States Hope for Weakened Hamas

The war in the Gaza Strip spilled over into Egypt yesterday when dozens of Gaza residents crossed the border only to encounter Egyptian gunfire aimed at driving them back. The ongoing closure of the Rafah crossing between Gaza and Egypt has become a symbol of Cairo's policy, which critics charge is one of collaborating with Israel to impose economic sanctions on the Strip. Judging by Arab leaders' statements to the media, or the slogans shouted by demonstrators in several Arab capitals, one might have thought that Egypt, not Israel, was the one waging war on Gaza.

Hamas' demand that Egypt open Rafah to all Gazans, and not just to the wounded seeking treatment abroad, has been rejected in part because Egypt remains committed to an Israeli-Palestinian agreement from 2005 that governs the Gaza border crossings, even though it was never a signatory to the pact. But beyond this formal reason, Egypt wants to prevent thousands of Palestinians from once again crossing the border into its territory. This past January, when hundreds of thousands of Palestinians broke through the border fence, the Egyptian government suffered harsh criticism at home for allowing Egypt's sovereignty to be violated.

Nevertheless, it seems unlikely that Cairo will long be able to withstand the enormous pressure being generated by the Arab media and public.

Thus far, Hamas has not succeeded in generating an Arab diplomatic initiative that would lead to a renewed cease-fire on its terms.

Egypt and Saudi Arabia, which view Hamas as an Iranian ally whose goal is to increase Tehran's regional influence at their expense, prefer to wait a bit in the hopes that Israel's military operation will strip Hamas of its ability to dictate terms. And without those two states, the Arab League will have trouble even convening an emergency summit.

Granted, such a summit has limited practical value. But its absence indicates that Arab solidarity with the Palestinians is crumbling under Hamas' leadership.

Cairo is still furious with Hamas for having torpedoed Egyptian-sponsored reconciliation talks between Hamas and Fatah in November, while Saudi Arabia is wary of launching any new initiative after the much-touted reconciliation agreement it brokered between Hamas and Fatah in 2006 collapsed into bloodshed nine months later. As a result, Qatar is likely to step into the role of "honest broker" between Israel and Hamas.

Qatar, one of only two Arab nations (along with Jordan) that contacted Israel directly to demand that it stop its operation in Gaza, currently carries diplomatic heft. This is partly because of its success in brokering an agreement between the warring factions in Lebanon this spring, but also because it manages to maintain good relations with everyone: both Israel and Iran, as well as Syria and Saudi Arabia.

Nevertheless, it will probably be premature to talk about mediation toward a cease-fire as long as Jerusalem believes it can force Hamas to sue for a truce on Israel's terms.