Egypt, Mideast in focus at Munich conference

2nd February 2011, Comments 0 comments

Revolt in Egypt and the implications for the stalled Middle East peace process are set to be key talking points for top defence officials at the Munich Security Conference in Germany from Friday.

The three-day annual get-together of ministers, top military brass, national security advisors and experts will also tackle hot-button issues like Iran, Afghanistan, the rise of China, NATO-Russia relations and disarmament.

Other topics for the 750 participants, who will include US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, UN chief Ban Ki-moon and German Chancellor Angela Merkel, will be cyberwarfare and challenges posed by cuts in defence spending.

On the sidelines on Saturday, a "Quartet" meeting of Middle East mediators will take place with Clinton, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton and Ban.

George Mitchell, US Middle East envoy, and Tony Blair, the Quartet's envoy and former British prime minister, were also due to be there, organisers said.

The Palestinians walked out of direct peace talks three weeks after they started in September when Israel baulked at extending a 10-month partial freeze on settlement construction in the West Bank.

The Palestinian Authority meanwhile has been defensive since Qatar-based satellite channel Al-Jazeera started releasing thousands of documents purported to show far-reaching concessions offered to Israel behind closed doors.

"The sadly misnamed 'peace process' is proceeding precisely nowhere," the British weekly The Economist said this week.

Events in Egypt threaten to complicate matters further, since President Hosni Mubarak, under pressure to quit after days of mass protests, has been a key diplomatic partner for the West in the region for three decades.

"The fear of the Israelis and the US government is that a new Egyptian government ... could take a different course," Thomas Hasel, a North Africa expert at Berlin's Free University, told AFP.

Israeli officials have warned of the danger of Islamic extremists coming to power across their border, citing the examples of the 1979 Iranian revolution and the coming to power of Hamas in the Gaza Strip in 2006-7.

Mubarak said on Tuesday that he would not seek a sixth term in elections in September, but opposition groups have said there can be no negotiations with the regime until the 82-year-old leaves.

Egypt, the first Arab state to sign a peace treaty with Israel after four wars, "is of course looming very large on our radar screen," said Wolfgang Ischinger, the former German diplomat in charge of the Munich conference.

Clinton and Lavrov, meanwhile, are also expected to use their attendance for an exchange of documents formally bringing into force the two former Cold War foes' new START nuclear disarmament treaty.

Others due in Munich include British Prime Minister David Cameron, Afghan President Hamid Karzai, NATO chief Anders Fogh Rasmussen, Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili and the Indian and Israeli national security advisors.

It was unclear if any Iranian representative will be there. In previous years Tehran has sent senior officials, but Tehran's holding of two German journalists is complicating matters this year, sources said.

But the Islamic republic is set to be a major issue nonetheless, not least with reference to cybersecurity in light of the havoc reportedly wrought by the Stuxnet computer worm to Iran's uranium enrichment facilities.

© 2011 AFP

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