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Dr. Josef Olmert

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Shalit Deal -- Egypt's Role

Posted: 10/12/11 01:11 PM ET

The initial reactions to the Shalit deal were conflicting in Israel and among the Palestinians. In Israel, eyebrows were raised as to the price involved, and that alongside the general sense of relief about the closure of a human story that has become a major bone of contention in Israel's society.

Among the Palestinians, the reactions were that of joy celebrating a presumed victory over Israel. Just some hours passed, and the pendulum swung almost full circle. As details of the deal became known, many Israelis reversed their initial reservations, praising PM Netanyahu for what seems an achievement for Israel. This is because the likes of Marwan and Abdallah Barguti and Ahmad Sa'adat, notorious terrorists who became symbols for both Israelis and Palestinians for the exact opposite reasons, are not included in the deal. As is so typical of this conflict, expectations are of supreme importance, so while the Israeli public displays satisfaction, many Palestinians do not, including Hamas supporters. Hamas leaders started a campaign of clarifications, some will say excuses to their frustrated constituents.

Here again, we are confronted with a basic rule regarding the Palestinian-Israeli conflict; nothing is as simple as it may look at first sight as the words of a famous Israeli song suggest, ''what we see from here, is not what we see from there''.

The leadership of Hamas has come to the realization that the deal, though different from their initial expectations, was inevitable at the current juncture of Middle East politics. A bigger game is at play and it needs to be explained.

Clearly, Hamas wanted to be seen as the Palestinian movement which calls the shots, particularly in the wake of Mahmoud Abbas' UN spectacle, but that may be the lesser motivation for them.

For a while there have been reports about a developing rift between Hamas and its patrons in Damascus. The Hamas leadership there, which is the supreme political leadership of the organization, cannot ignore the sectarian nature of the Syrian uprising, and the fact that the Sunni Arab countries, including Saudi Arabia have publicly distanced themselves from the Alawite-dominated Assad regime.

Hamas cannot be seen as the only important Sunni movement still in bed with the increasingly hated Syrian regime. It may be that the Hamas leaders also fear the possibility that a collapse of this regime, while they are still stationed there, will make it easier for Israel to settle scores with them.

Be that as it may, we are flooded with reports all indicating that Khalid Mashaal and colleagues are seriously pondering a move to another Arab capital. Amman was mentioned, and so is Cairo, and with the mentioning of the latter, the focus shifts back to Egypt and its regional role in the post-Mubarak era.

The overall impression that one gets reviewing the performance of the ruling Military Council in foreign affairs is one of extreme caution. The generals, led by Tantawi and the Chief of Staff Sami Hafiz Anan need to address an increasingly impatient public which shows clear signs of disenchantment with the slow pace of internal reforms, and also exhibits its anti-American and anti-Israel sentiments.

So, when it comes to Israel, the regime acts in a way which may seem incoherent, but still one that makes sense. The generals want to lower the public profile of the relations with Israel, they definitely allow the anti-Israel forces to demonstrate their anti-Israel feelings in a way that was unheard of under Mubarak. They also cause troubles regarding the natural gas deal with Israel which is very unpopular in Egypt.

Yet, within the straightjackets in which they operate, they are working hard to prevent an unbridgeable conflict with Israel. Their handling of the attack on the Israeli Embassy illustrated it dramatically. The rioters were allowed to do what should not have been allowed -- to ransack the Embassy -- but at the crucial moment, Egyptian commandos showed up and prevented a disaster.

Clearly, this was not the finest point of the Israeli-Egyptian relations, but again, expectations are of the essence. Is should be better, but it could be far worse. The Shalit deal may prove to be much finer moment in this complicated relations. No other than Yoram Cohen, the head of Israel's General Security Service [GSS], went out of his way to praise the role played by Egypt in facilitating the deal. According to him, this was a crucial role, and as we know that Hamas ends up with much less than what was initially demanded, we can definitely understand the praises heaped on the Egyptians.

What puts it all in context are two more facts. First, Ehud Barak, Israel's Minister of Defense officially apologized to Egypt for the unfortunate incident when five Egyptian security personnel were killed recently when caught in the crossfire between the Israelis and terrorists crossing the Sinai border.

And then, there is the strong possibility that the Hamas leadership will move permanently to Cairo. It all shows that even in the new, post-Mubarak era, the rulers of Egypt do not abandon their moderate role in Middle East politics.

This is very good news for the cause of stability in this troubled region of the world.