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Egypt poll leader calls to change policy toward Israel

May 16, 2011 9:03 A.M. (Updated: May 16, 2011 7:30 P.M.)
CAIRO, Egypt (AFP) - The frontrunner in Egypt's upcoming presidential election, Amr Moussa, distanced himself from his country's past policies towards Israel and told AFP in an interview his government would be frank with the US.

The outgoing Arab League secretary general said that Egypt's regional standing had diminished under ousted leader Hosni Mubarak, who was seen as a key ally of the United States and Israel.

Mussa said he would maintain a strong but more independent relationship with Washington, which underwrites most of Egypt's foreign aid.

"The policies that we saw were not supported by the people, nor understood by many," said the veteran diplomat who himself served as Mubarak's foreign minister for a decade.

Egypt was the first Arab country to sign a peace deal with Israel, in 1979. Maintaining the peace, after three costly wars, was one of the few things many Egyptians credited Mubarak with.

But Israel remains deeply unpopular in the Arab world's most populous state because of its policies towards Palestinians.

Moussa is currently considered the likely winner in the presidential election scheduled for November, the country's first since a revolt overthrew Mubarak in February.

"The Palestinian cause has a basis and principles agreed on by the Arabs, and we will work according to them" he said, referring to a 2002 proposal by the 22-member Arab League to recognise Israel in return for its withdrawal from occupied Arab lands.

"Any policy that goes against the public mood and the opinions it adopts is wrong, especially on sensitive matters such as Palestine," he said, clarifying that the 1979 treaty would not be touched.

"You can't have the people opposing the siege of Gaza, and a policy for the Gaza siege," he said, referring to a blockade by Israel and Egypt in place since the Islamist Hamas movement seized the enclave in 2007.

The foreign minister of Egypt's caretaker cabinet has said that Egypt would open its border crossing with the Palestinian territory.

Moussa, 74, is as popular in Egypt as he is disliked in Israel for his often scathing remarks against its practices in occupied Palestinian territories.

Mussa said the conflict must move beyond "conventional negotiations, negotiations where two sides sit at a table as video cameras take footage," he said.

He said he supported a Palestinian decision to seek UN recognition of a Palestinian state in September, because Israel "does not wish to move forward, but it just wants to win more land every day."

A former ambassador to the United Nations, he can be amiable and fiery in turn, with an appreciation of what Egyptians and Arabs want to hear from their representatives.

Almost two weeks before the Egyptian revolt, Moussa gave voice to the widespread Arab anger at their governments in an economic summit, warning Arab leaders that "the Arab soul is broken by poverty and unemployment."

At the time, the Egyptian government and other Arab regimes denied there was any similarity between their countries and Tunisia, where a revolt toppled president Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali.

"I warned that Tunisia's revolution was not far from here. The government used to say Tunisia is one thing, Egypt is another. My opinion was: no. I saw that the revolution had begun," he said.

The revolt may also bring him back from the cold, after Mubarak, reportedly concerned at his popularity, sidelined him after a 10-year stint as foreign minister that ended in 2001.

Moussa said he believed Mubarak may have hewed too closely to US demands on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict because he wanted its support for his plans to pass power to his son, Gamal.

He would not be as amenable to pressure, he said, although he would keep a strong relationship with the United States.

"Perhaps that was because there were other goals, for example achieving the process of inheritance, and now there aren't any" said Moussa of Mubarak's widely perceived quiescence in dealing with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Mubarak was widely to believed to have placed pressure on the Palestinians to negotiate with Israel when talks stalled, and Hamas accused his government of taking its rival Fatah's side in the talks and eventually hindering a deal.

Within three months after Mubarak's ouster, the factions signed a unity deal in Cairo.

"Egypt's relationship with the United States did not stop Egypt from leading the Palestinian reconciliation. There has indeed been a change. There was perhaps a type of diminishing of Egypt's role, and that was unacceptable," Mussa said.

"The relationship between the Americans and Egypt has to remain strong and frank, a respectable relationship, not a relationship of one following the other," he said.

Moussa will compete in the November election against an Islamist candidate, Abdel Monem Abolfotoh, and Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Mohammed ElBaradei, the former UN nuclear watchdog chief who returned to Egypt to oppose Mubarak.

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