Egypt unrest further hampers Washington's Mideast peace efforts

JERUSALEM – Widespread unrest in Egypt is almost certain to add another roadblock to the long-stalled Israel-Palestinian peace negotiations, American and Israeli foreign policy experts say.

Israeli leaders this week have called for the resumption of peace talks with the Palestinians as a response to the roiling unrest in Egypt, but they will likely be put on the shelf as Western governments wait to see how pro-democracy protests resolve themselves across the Arab world.

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Facing a new political regime in Egypt that could toss aside the country’s 1979 peace agreement with Israel, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told the Israeli parliament Thursday that it is crucial to restart peace talks with Palestinians in order to mitigate further potential threats to the Jewish state.

The United States has traditionally acted as a mediator between the Israelis and Palestinians, but foreign policy analysts said this week that a new Egyptian government will be less friendly to the U.S., which could impede its ability to jump-start the stalled negotiations between the two sides.

“Whatever the new Egypt is or isn’t, it will be a much less friendly place for American interests as traditionally defined,” Aaron David Miller, a former Middle East adviser at the State Department under both Presidents Clinton and George W. Bush, said this week on a conference call sponsored by The Israel Project.

As the first Arab nation to sign a peace treaty with the Israel, President Hosni Mubarak’s Egypt has long played a crucial role in the peace talks.

Miller and other experts said it remains to be seen whether or not a potential new Egyptian government would abrogate the peace treaty. But he said that a new regime will likely “lead to a much, much narrower space for the United States on any number of issues… Not to mention, of course, how much – how much less space and less patience there’s going to be for Israeli action and policies, if in fact a government does emerge, to be more inclusive, more accountable and more transparent.”

The uncertainty surrounding the Egyptian government and the tenure of Mubarak is only the latest setback in the near-term to the Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, which have been dead since Sept. 2010.

President Obama and Netanyahu have both urged Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas to return to the bargaining table, but a number of missteps on all sides have derailed the negotiations.

Aside from the core disagreement over settlement construction, Obama’s relationship with Netanyahu has been strained from the outset and Abbas lacks a strong power base in the Palestinian territories. All these factors have contributed to a general lack of trust.

Additionally, last month’s leak of the so-called “Palestinian Papers” revealing behind-the-scenes negotiations over the past decade has also made both sides reluctant to resume talks.

The turmoil could also put a damper on the Saturday meeting of the quartet of Middle East peace negotiators, the U.S., United Nations, European Union and Russia, who are trying to restart the talks. The group will likely have a close eye on the developments in Egypt as they meet.

Meanwhile, experts say that the best possible outcome for both Israel and the U.S. is a moderate, democratically elected regime in Egypt that will uphold the pact. But former CIA director James Woolsey, who served under Clinton, said on a conference call that the organized Muslim Brotherhood opposition group’s presence in the protests indicates that, “The risk is expanding that governance by Islamist groups could occur,” meaning, “The abrogation of the [peace treaty] is a very high possibility.

"Revolutions have often times in history started off looking like the moderates are winning,” Woolsey, who also advised GOP Sen. John McCain (Ariz.) during his 2008 presidential run, said.

In addition, the unrest has put political pressure on Abbas, who is a Mubarak supporter. Abbas this week has had to quell anti-Mubarak protests that have sprouted up in the Palestinian Authority-controlled West Bank.

That has forced Abbas into a weak position, Arab-Israeli journalist Khaled Abu Toameh said.

“Egypt damages the Palestinian Authority since it puts pressure on Mahmoud Abbas to be more Hamas than Hamas,” he told reporters during a Friday night dinner in Jerusalem.

Toameh also criticized the United States’ approach to the peace talks.

"The Americans' mistake is that they assume there is a solution and they keep trying to implement one,” he said. “For now, since there is no solution, all you can do is manage the conflict and help the Palestinians help themselves."

Miller added that the Israeli and United States governments are likely to be tied up with Egypt “for weeks and months” until they find a comfort level with the situation in the Middle East.

“If you asked me whether or not in the next six months we have a chance of bridging the gaps between Israelis and Palestinians on Jerusalem border security and refugees, against the backdrop of what we’re watching here, I would say the chances of that are very unlikely,” Miller said. "We have to be very careful, particularly in these circumstances, that we don’t start again only to admit that we haven’t moved the ball.”