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Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's tour to the Middle East did not start off well. In Egypt, one of America's most important allies in the region, Rice found herself facing tough questions from the local press and accusations that the US was to blame for the results of the Palestinian elections.
But more troubling for Rice, and for US policy, was the reluctance of Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit to accept the American request not to provide financial assistance to a Hamas-led Palestinian Authority, saying that the world should "give Hamas time" before rushing into sanctions.
The Egyptian reaction was not only a slap in the face to the American policy makers, but also a significant crack in the wall of isolation the US is trying to build around Hamas.
Since the results of the January 25 elections became public, the US administration has been trying to tackle the problem on two fronts - the financial front and the diplomatic one. This effort started off very well for the US, with the Quartet issuing a harsh statement demanding Hamas comply with the demands of the international community and with world leaders, including Arab leaders, calling on Hamas to moderate.
But as weeks went by, both fronts began to weaken.
First, Russia came and broke the rule of no-engagement with Hamas, followed by Turkey and several Arab countries. Then the US discovered it would not be that easy to maintain a ban on financial aid to the PA after the EU criticized Israel for stopping the transfer of tax money and the Egyptians refused to cut aid.
The US is now putting all its diplomatic force into trying to reverse the weakening trend of the anti-Hamas front. Secretary Rice is personally trying to convince Arab leaders, and senior American diplomats will follow up on her conversations.
Time is critical for the US effort; if the international front against Hamas crumbles in the next weeks and months, it will be very difficult to restore it, which is exactly why the Americans are struggling now to prevent any crack in the wall.
Egypt is not a major contributor to the Palestinians, but is seen as a leader of the moderate Arab world. If Cairo stays on board with Washington on the Hamas issue, most of the Arab countries will follow. But, if the US loses Egypt's support, it will be even more difficult to get the Gulf countries, which really do have the money to save the Palestinian economy, to adhere to the limitations set forth by the US and the international community.