The Cable

Egyptian intelligence chief’s Washington agenda

Egyptian intelligence chief Omar Suleiman visited Washington this week to confer with members of the Obama administration in an attempt to advance cease-fire talks between Israel and Hamas contingent upon a deal over the release of an Israeli soldier. Suleiman, the long-time head of Egypt’s General Intelligence Service and a close advisor to Egyptian President ...

Egyptian intelligence chief Omar Suleiman visited Washington this week to confer with members of the Obama administration in an attempt to advance cease-fire talks between Israel and Hamas contingent upon a deal over the release of an Israeli soldier.

Suleiman, the long-time head of Egypt’s General Intelligence Service and a close advisor to Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, held meetings with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs Jeffrey Feltman and Middle East peace envoy George Mitchell, as well as with officials at the National Security Council.

Suleiman has been involved in negotiating a cease-fire between Hamas and Israel, one more durable than the arrangement currently in place. He has also been brokering talks on a possible unity government between rival Palestinian factions Hamas and Fatah. The Israeli cabinet determined in recent weeks that Hamas must release Gilad Shalit, whom the Islamist militant group has held since 2006, before cease-fire negotiations take place. Hamas, in turn, has demanded the release of some 450 Hamas prisoners in Israeli prisons before it will give Shalit back.

The stance of the Middle East Quartet, the international group made up of the United States, Russia, the United Nations, and the European Union, has long been that to join a Palestinian unity government, members must renounce terrorism, agree to honor all past commitments, and recognize Israel’s right to exist. Hamas’s formal charter rejects that. The Obama administration has reiterated its support for the Quartet’s conditions.

Contrary to reports indicating Suleiman was urging Washington to soften its position, U.S. officials say, the Egyptian intelligence chief urged the opposite.

"He didn’t ask the U.S. to do anything with regard to the unity talks," said one Washington Middle East hand who met with Suleiman this week. "But he made very clear that he had told the Hamas delegation himself that the only thing acceptable for them is to abide by the commitments, and they couldn’t use fudging formulas or ambiguity to get around that, or there couldn’t be a deal."

Suleiman’s message to the Obama team, according to one think-tank based regional expert, is that "if they want to get this deal between Hamas and Israel for a more durable cease-fire, the administration needs to get a little bit more involved at this point."

While hopes rose last week that there was going to be a deal to release Shalit, the think tank expert said, the negotiations fell apart after Israel refused to release more than 325 prisoners. The other prisoners, Israel said, had been involved in some of the most horrific terrorist bombings from 2002 to 2003, he explained.

"The Egyptians are starting to get frustrated with all the parties," the think tank expert continued.

Suleiman "certainly is frustrated by the inability to bring about a more durable cease-fire," the Washington Middle East hand involved with the visit agreed. "Obviously he recounted some of that history. The Israeli cabinet decided Shalit’s release had to precede cease-fire negotiations two to three weeks ago."

"But at the end, not a lot moved very much," the Middle East hand continued. "While Suleiman may have been somewhat frustrated by the Israeli decision to put Shalit negotiations ahead of cease-fire negotiations, he is also frustrated by Hamas’ refusal to budge — all of it."

As a result of its role brokering indirect talks on the Gaza crisis, Egypt’s — and Suleiman’s – standing in Washington has risen in the past few years, the think tank expert said. He is a "straight shooter … [who] sees himself as responsible for the serious tough issues, chiefly the Palestinian file, and the Sudanese file." Mubarak credits the intelligence chief for basically saving his life, in preventing an attempted assassination of the Egyptian president in Addis Ababa in the 1990s, he said.

"I would describe him first and foremost as a political realist," said a former CIA officer who has interacted with the Egyptian intelligence chief. Suleiman "is an incredible, really good guy to try to talk Hamas back." Whether he can do it, he added, is unclear. While he may distrust Israel, the former U.S. intelligence officer said, Suleiman’s "biggest fear is that Egypt is going to get squeezed out of its relationship with the Western world and back into the arms" of Islamists.

Suleiman may have had another agenda for his trip, speculated one Israeli analyst on condition of anonymity: Helping Palestinian unity government talks fail. “Some of the people around [Palestinian president Mahmoud] Abbas are against the talks proceeding. … The Fatah people who want this to fail are trying to corner the Americans into reissuing with no flexibility the [Quartet] conditions on Hamas joining a unity government.

“What might be going on,” he added, is that “Fatah and Suleiman are using the Americans to torpedo [unity] talks without getting blamed themselves.” He said the parties may not want the unity talks to visibly collapse before, or be the dominant issue at, the Arab League summit scheduled to take place later this month in Doha, Qatar.

 

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