Anne Penketh: Gaza negotiations are the battleground for Egyptand Syria's 'Arab Cold War'

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The Independent Online

Egypt and Syria are exploiting their negotiations with Hamas in a titanic struggle that will determine Arab leadership in the Middle East, according to analysts.

An "Arab Cold War" is raging between the two countries for supremacy over the Gaza crisis, said the Chatham House Middle East analyst Nadim Shehadi. In the Egyptian camp are other US allies such as Jordan and Saudi Arabia, while behind Syria are Qatar, Yemen and Algeria as well as its political (non-Arab) ally Iran, which backs Hamas and the Shia fighters of Hizbollah in Lebanon.

While Egypt has long been the negotiator of choice for the West with Hamas, "the Syrians are trying to snatch the leading role from Egypt", said Mr Shehadi. It is a struggle with global implications should there be a shift of strategic power to Damascus, he added. "The whole balance of power in the region will change radically if Egypt loses its role."

Egypt has led intense talks with Hamas envoys from the Gaza Strip and from the group's exiled leadership in Syria for more than a week, but with no signs of a breakthrough.

Egypt and the West have said the way forward after an immediate ceasefire lies through a Palestinian reconciliation between Hamas and the Islamist movement's secular rivals in Fatah on the West Bank, led by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. But it is difficult to know how Hamas could be reconciled with its sworn rivals, whom they ousted from Gaza by force in June 2007. As reports in the Egyptian press spoke of difficulties in the talks with Hamas, President Hosni Mubarak yesterday flew to Saudi Arabia, accompanied by his chief fixer, the head of Egyptian intelligence Lieutenant General Omar Suleiman, for urgent consultations with King Abdullah. Egypt and Saudi Arabia are fighting off proposals from Qatar – which supports Hamas – for an emergency summit on Gaza which would further expose Arab divisions.

Hamas may be split between its "pragmatic" leadership now underground in Gaza and the hardliners in Damascus, a suggestion strongly denied yesterday by Mohammad Nazal of the Hamas political bureau. He described such reports as "meant to stir up confusion" over the Hamas position and denounced them as part of Israel's "psychological warfare".

However, after a meeting in Cairo last week, the Hamas negotiators appeared to have accepted the Egyptian ceasefire initiative. When they returned to Damascus, the influential speaker of the Iranian parliament, Ali Larijani, turned up. Then the Damascus-based leadership responded negatively to the Egyptian proposals.

Some commentators are critical of Egypt's handling of the negotiations as mediator. President Hosni Mubarak has always been hostile to Hamas, an offshoot of the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood which is banned in Egypt. He has been quoted as telling European foreign ministers in Cairo last week that Hamas "must not be allowed to emerge from the fighting with the upper hand".

"Mubarak has a vitriolic dislike of the Muslim Brotherhood and Islamist movements. It's a poor way of talking," said Alastair Crooke, the Beirut-based director of Conflicts Forum, on Egypt's hectoring of Hamas. "It is about communication. It's not a one-way street." Mr Crooke, who works with political Islamic groups, believes the West has been imprisoned by its strict adherence to the principles of the Middle East Quartet, which call on Hamas to recognise Israel, end violence and respect previous agreements as a precondition for talks.

He points out that Hamas has in the past made gestures on the first two conditions. As for the third, he says: "What about the Conservatives in Britain? Do they recognise every previous EU agreement signed by previous governments?"

Western diplomats said it was unlikely that the Quartet – representing the EU, US, UN and Russia – was about to rip up its criteria, even under President Barack Obama.

But support for engaging with Hamas is growing. Sir Jeremy Greenstock, a former British ambassador to the United Nations, argued the case in favour on the Today programme on Monday. Mr Shehadi pointed out that Hamas now spoke for the Palestinians. "It is now the interlocutor. They are making a ceasefire with it. They are weakening Abu Mazen [Mr Abbas]. If Egypt fails, the stakes are really high."