Egypt Tries To Help Hamas Broker A Cease-Fire

Egypt has stepped up negotiations on a cease-fire between Israel and the Hamas militants in the Gaza Strip on Monday. Hamas' top leader and two senior Israeli envoys were in Cairo and met separately with Egyptian officials, including President Mohammed Morsi. One of Morsi's aides said a truce deal could be imminent.

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First this hour, a sign of hope. An Egyptian official says he is hopeful a deal to end the fighting between Israel and Hamas militants in the Gaza Strip can be reached soon, perhaps, he says, as early as tonight. Egypt is leading the push for a truce, but it does so against the backdrop of a new Middle East. As NPR's Leila Fadel reports from Cairo, governments are now accountable to popular sympathies, sympathies aligned with the Palestinians.

KHALED MESHAAL: (Foreign language spoken)

LEILA FADEL, BYLINE: Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal appeared defiant at a press conference in Cairo. He said it was Israel, not Hamas, that called for a truce, and it is Israel that must agree to Hamas's terms for violence to end. Meshaal was not a welcomed visitor to Cairo under the regime of former President Hosni Mubarak. But Egypt's new leader, Mohammed Morsi, and Meshaal are ideological allies. Hamas is an offshoot of Morsi's Muslim Brotherhood.

But while Egyptians overwhelmingly back the Palestinians, Morsi also has to contend with international partners who want to see Egypt take a more nuanced approach to the fighting next door.

(SOUNDBITE OF PROTEST)

FADEL: Protests like this one in Cairo, showing solidarity with the Palestinians, are now part of the political discourse in Egypt and other Arab nations since the Arab revolts tore through the region and reshaped the geopolitical map. Unlike the assault on Gaza almost four years ago, Israel is living in a different neighborhood now. Compliant dictators in Tunisia and Egypt are gone. Michael Wahid Hanna, of the Council on Foreign Relations. [POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: Hanna's professional affiliation was incorrectly stated. He is a fellow at the Century Foundation.]

MICHAEL WAHID HANNA: I think the hallmark of the previous period, particularly under the Mubarak regime, was a yawning gap between state policies and very heated popular opinion. And that's harder to reconcile now, particularly if you are an elected leader in Egypt. Popular opinion matters in a way that it never did before.

FADEL: Hanna says there is no question that the discourse has changed. Morsi immediately pulled his ambassador from Israel when the conflict began, sent his prime minister to Gaza to show solidarity, and rallied Arab nations in support of the Palestinians. He also is a self-appointed mediator of the conflict, fielding calls from world leaders from Iran to the United States while his government meets here with Israeli and Palestinian envoys.

But on the ground, policy hasn't shifted dramatically. Morsi, observers say, is limited by Egypt's peace treaty with Israel. He is fearful of a wider conflict that could destabilize Egypt, says Hanna.

HANNA: Egypt comes up against very hard choices, particularly with the fact that they don't want to be saddled with the burden of administering Gaza. This has always been an Egyptian strategic priority, and it's part of the reason that we haven't seen greater liberalization of the border regime between Egypt and the Gaza Strip.

FADEL: An Egyptian official who spoke only on background due to the sensitivity of the negotiations under way said that only the United States can stop the bloodshed by putting pressure on Israel. The official says there have been encouraging signs that a deal is near. The demands on both sides are polar opposites. Hamas demands that Israel stop assassinating its leaders and insists on an end of Israel's blockade of Gaza. Israel is demanding that rockets stop being fired into its land.

Up until now, Egypt has restricted travel and trade with Gaza, but the Egyptian official warned that long term Egypt will no longer be part of the siege of 1.7 million people in what he called an open-air prison. Meanwhile, Hamas appears to be capitalizing on the newfound support from Arab nations. Today, Meshaal warned Israel that a ground invasion of Gaza would be political suicide. He accused Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of launching the offensive for political gains.

MESHAAL: (Through translator) Netanyahu wanted to get ahead in the elections with these strikes, and now he is worried. He wanted to test Egypt, the new Egypt, the Egyptian leadership, and the answer came against his expectations. He wanted to test the Arab Spring. The Arab Spring was up to our expectations.

FADEL: Samer Shehata, an Egypt expert at Georgetown...

SAMER SHEHATA: I think there's more pressure this time on the Israelis and maybe on the United States to try to end this quickly and certainly not to have it spiral out of control.

FADEL: The question now, he says, is whether Hamas's newfound regional support will change a thing. Leila Fadel, NPR News, Cairo.

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Correction Jan. 18, 2013

We mistakenly refer to Michael Wahid Hanna as being associated with the Council on Foreign Relations. Hanna is a fellow at the Century Foundation.

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