(photo credit: )
Egypt sounded a lot like Israel during Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni's visit to Cairo Wednesday, with top Egyptian officials saying that Hamas must recognize Israel and stop terrorism, and that there can be no negotiations under fire.
Egyptian intelligence chief Omar Suleiman told Israeli journalists accompanying Livni on her eight-hour visit that Hamas's inclusion into a PA government would be dependent on the organization stopping violence, recognizing Israel's right to exist and keeping all previous agreements with Israel.
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If Hamas did not take these steps, said Suleiman, who rarely speaks to the Israeli press, PA Chairman Mahmoud Abbas would not be obligated to include them in a future government.
Since Hamas's victory last week, Israel has been trying to put together a wide international coalition supporting these three points. Suleiman's statement was the first time a top-level Egyptian official articulated them publicly.
Suleiman, who characterized Hamas as "very radical people," said it would take time to get the organization to change its positions, and that it would not be easy for them to make a "180-degree turn." He did not give a timetable, but indicted that in Egypt's view, Abbas should continue heading a caretaker government.
Abbas was also in Cairo Wednesday and met with Mubarak just prior to Livni's meeting with the Egyptian president in his palace. Livni and Abbas, however, did not meet.
Livni met alone with Mubarak for some two hours, far extending the scheduled 45-minute meeting, something that Israeli diplomatic officials said was "unprecedented" for an Israel foreign minister.
Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit also set a precedent by saying at a press conference with Livni following their meeting that "negotiations cannot be held under fire." As a result, he said, the violence must end.
At the same time, Gheit tried to soften Suleiman's position on having preconditions to Hamas's participation in the government, saying that in Egypt's view, there were no preconditions but rather "factors" that must be taken into consideration by any party that wanted to join the PA government.
"The word 'conditions' is not part of our vocabulary," Gheit said. "We persuade people to move from one position to the other. We believe that eventually when you come to power you have to deal with the situation, you have to deal with the Israelis, you have to deal on a daily basis with the interests of your people." He publicly disagreed with Livni for using the word conditions, something done rarely at these types of press conferences.
Despite the slight difference in approach between Suleiman and Gheit, senior Israeli officials said that there was no doubt Egypt agreed with Israel's position on what Hamas needed to do to join a PA government.
What was not clear even at the end of the day of meetings - Livni's first visit abroad since becoming foreign minister two weeks ago - was how determined the Egyptians were on pressing Hamas to change its positions.
Egypt does not give much money to the PA - last year they pledged $3 million and only paid $1m. - so their economic leverage is nonexistent. And Israeli officials said there was no chance they would use the most significant leverage they have at their disposal - a threat to close the Rafah terminal, Gaza's only gate to the world.
Nevertheless, the officials said that Hamas does take into consideration Egypt's position, primarily because of its preeminent status in the Arab world. The officials said they also respect and trust Suleiman, who over the past couple of years has been mediating between the various Palestinian factions, including Hamas and Fatah.
Israeli officials said that Egypt was seriously concerned about how Hamas's victory could embolden their own Islamic radicals, and was genuine in wanting to retain a relative degree of quiet and stability in the region. Cairo's fear, according to these officials, was that a PA government led by a Hamas that had not reformed could destabilize the region.
During Livni's meetings, which also included a meeting with Suleiman, the Egyptians pressed Israel to release the $60 million in tax and customs revenues that it is to transfer to the Palestinian Authority, but which it has so far held up.
The government is expected to hold a wide-range meeting next week on how to view the current transitional government inside the PA, and whether the revenues should be transferred since Hamas was not yet in the government.
Suleiman said that if Israel did not release the funds, Iran could possibly move into the breach and begin massively funding the PA.
Gheit, during the press conference, said that Egypt expected Israel to transfer the funds, and that it cannot agree to a situation where "the entire Palestinian people will be punished."
Livni denied that Israel was punishing the Palestinian population, saying that "unfortunately, the Palestinian people chose a terrorist organization to be their leaders. At the end of the day there is a need for any new government to stop terrorism, dismantle the terrorist organizations, stop violence, recognize Israel and stop hatred."
Gheit also placed Livni on the defensive during the press conference when he likened Hamas's victory to the Likud rise to power in 1977, and said that the Likud was considered extremist at the time, and went on to sign Camp David and agree to the Oslo accords.
Livni, who quit the Likud for Kadima last year, still defended her old party and said there could be no comparison between a party that was a legitimate part of the democratic system and "a terrorist organization that used the democratic system to gain power."
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