Egypt's Mubarak: "No Light at the End of the Tunnel"

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Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak

Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, a key mediator in the Arab-Israeli conflict for the past 25 years, is expressing displeasure with the Bush Administration's handling of the conflict in Lebanon. In written responses to questions from TIME, Mubarak said the emergency meeting with Arab envoys hosted by Secretary of State Condeleezza Rice in Rome Wednesday failed to halt the bloodshed. While not directly criticizing the White House's refusal to call for an immediate cessation of Israel's attacks on Lebanon, he complained that the crisis "could have been contained at its early stage" and demanded that the international community issue "a serious and urgent demarche"[diplomatic protest]to achieve peace and security.

Israel's military campaign in Lebanon, Mubarak said, "went way too far" and has "triggered an increasing rage within the Arabs, Moslems and worldwide." With the broader Middle East peace process at a stalemate, he expressed pessimism about resolving the crisis. "There is no light at the end of the tunnel," he said.

In the interview, Mubarak also revealed details of the Egyptian mediation that nearly defused the escalating Middle East crisis before it spread from the Gaza Strip to Israel's northern front on July 12. On the eve of the outbreak of hostilities in Lebanon, he said, Egyptian intelligence operatives almost brokered a deal for the release of an Israeli soldier kidnapped by militants of the Palestinian Hamas group based in Gaza. But he said that "certain third parties" — an apparent reference to Hamas exile leader Khaled Mishal and the Syrian regime in Damascus that supports him — "aborted our efforts." He also revealed that he asked Syrian President Bashar Assad to intervene with Hizballah to win the freedom of the two Israeli soldiers the Lebanese Shi'ite Muslim group captured to ignite the fighting in Lebanon. But Mubarak indicated that he would not join the U.S. push for Arab pressure on Syria, a key backer of Hizballah along with Iran, arguing that "attempts to isolate Syria are counterproductive." Mubarak criticized Hizballah for acting as a "state within the state," however, and complained that Iran's opposition to Arab-Israeli peace "further complicates an already complicated situation."

Mubarak issued his remarks Thursday in written replies to questions submitted by TIME as requested by the President's office. Excerpts from the interview:

TIME: What is Egypt doing about the crisis?

Mubarak: Our efforts started from day one. An Egyptian intelligence delegation was dispatched to Gaza. We were about to strike a deal to hand over the abducted soldier to [Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, also known as] Abu Mazen or to Egypt. However, the interference by certain third parties aborted our efforts. We did not lose hope. We have reason to believe that a deal can still be worked out. This is absolutely important to bring the current Israeli escalation in Gaza to an end and to keep alive the chances of resuming peace efforts.

TIME: And regarding Hizballah?

Mubarak: A few hours after the abduction of the two Israeli soldiers by Hizballah, I dispatched Egypt's Foreign Minister [Ahmed Aboul Gheit] to Damascus. He conveyed a message to the Syrian President [Bashar Assad] cautioning against the gravity of the situation and requesting his interference with Hizballah to release the Israeli soldiers. Our efforts continue with regional and international partners to stop the current escalation. We keep our channels open with the Lebanese and the Israelis together with the Saudis, the Jordanians, the Americans, the Europeans, the Russians and the United Nations.

TIME: What should be done?

Mubarak: Lebanon is heading to a humanitarian crisis. Military operations will not solve Israel's problems with Hizballah. An immediate cease-fire is the utmost priority. Cessation of hostilities would create the environment conducive to addressing such problems in a candid manner. The bloodshed and the heavy toll of Israel's operations must be brought to an end. The Rome meeting of the International Core Group on Lebanon has failed to achieve this goal. The Security Council has a role to play and must discharge its responsibilities.

TIME: What is behind the crisis?

Mubarak: The core issue is the stagnation of the peace process. The peace process has to be reinvigorated and brought to an early, successful and final conclusion. Only this will ensure security and stability for each and every country in the Middle East, including Israel. The current escalations in Lebanon and Gaza are just symptoms of the chronic unsettled situation in the Middle East. No progress was achieved with regard to the Road Map. The two-state vision declared by President Bush did not move an inch. The Israeli-Syrian peace track is stagnated and the one with Lebanon is blocked by the sticky Shebaa Farms issue. There is no light at the end of the tunnel. This triggers a great deal of frustration in the whole region and leads to such escalations as witnessed nowadays.

TIME: What about the role of Syria and Iran are playing?

Mubarak: Syria is an important Arab country whose stability contributes to the stability of the whole region. We keep our channels open with Damascus and the Syrians respond to our advice and requests to the best of their abilities. Attempts to isolate Syria are counterproductive. Syrian aspirations to free the occupied Golan Heights must be accommodated and fulfilled.

TIME: Do you agree that Iran is playing a more assertive role in the Middle East, at the expense of moderate states like Egypt?

Mubarak: It is not "how assertive" a certain role might be. It is rather "how positive." Egypt's choice is to play a role that contributes positively and constructively to the Middle East peace, security and stability. No other role could take place at the expense of Egypt and the other moderate states of the area. No regional security arrangements for the Gulf or the Middle East could bypass or marginalize us. The problem with Iran relates to its long-standing declared opposition to the peace process. Such a position adopted by Iran further complicates an already complicated situation in the region. I also hope that Tehran could use its leverage with fundamentalist and radical groups across the region, for the sake of a more secure and stable Middle East.

TIME: How do you see Hamas and Hizballah?

Mubarak: Both need to review their policies and tactics. Both need to reassess their gains and losses. Both are accountable to their constituencies. There are many lessons to learn from the current crises. I hope this gets through to their leaders for the sake of the Palestinian and Lebanese peoples. Hamas, all other Palestinian factions and Abu Mazen have to set aside their differences and speak in one voice. They have to prove that there exists a Palestinian partner able to negotiate a peace settlement with Israel. As to Hizballah, they are part and parcel of the Lebanese people's fabric. However, nobody should be allowed to establish a state within the state, neither in Lebanon nor elsewhere.

TIME: How do you see Israel's response to Hizballah's attack on Israel?

Mubarak: Disproportionate, to say the least. Israel's response demonstrated a collective punishment against the Palestinians and the Lebanese. The bloodshed and the destruction caused by the Israelis went way too far. This Israeli disproportionate response triggered an increasing rage within the Arabs, Muslims, and worldwide. Hostage situations have to be tackled with a great deal of wisdom and caution.

TIME: What is your opinion of how the U.S. and international community responded to the crisis?

Mubarak: A bit too little, too late. The situation could have been contained at its early stage. Instead, it has been allowed to aggravate, with little effort being exerted within and outside the Security Council. Now is the time for the Council to shoulder its responsibility in the maintenance of international peace and security. The U.S. and the other permanent members have to assume a particular responsibility in this regard. An urgent and serious demarche by the international community is most needed. Egypt stands ready, willing, able and looking forward to contributing to such efforts.