New Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas will help open a fresh chapter in the long search for Middle East peace this week when he meets with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon in the Egyptian Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh. But as usual, internal Palestinian politics played a key role in getting him there. Abbas agreed to go to Sharm el-Sheikh because he wants to show that he has Egypt's support in his effort to rein in the militants of Hamas and Islamic Jihad. Shaken by Hamas' overwhelming victory in last month's municipal elections in the Gaza Strip, Abbas' Fatah Party sees Egypt as a powerful ally in the political battle against the group.
Many in Fatah aren't happy about Abbas' trip to Sharm el-Sheikh, fearing it might actually hurt him in his fight against Hamas. "You need to put your own house in order first," says a Fatah chief. To do that, Abbas must deal with Prime Minister Ahmed Qurei, who refuses to cleanse the Cabinet of Yasser Arafat's cronies and opposes Abbas' pick for Interior Minister. Referring to the upcoming talks, Qurei told an aide last week, "I expect another Aqaba failure," likening the summit to one held in Jordan in 2003.
Some Fatah officials are wondering why Egypt is suddenly taking such an interest in Palestinian affairs. The reason, many speculate, may have less to do with optimism over Abbas' recent election than with growing pressure for Cairo to make sweeping changes in its authoritarian rule. In his State of the Union address, President George W. Bush expressed hope that Egypt, having shown "the way toward peace in the Middle East, can now show the way toward democracy in the Middle East." That repeated, almost word for word, a line Bush used in a 2003 speech. As Bush's speechwriters try to drive home that message, Egypt may be trying to deflect attention away from it. --By Matt Rees and Jamil Hamad