Egypt peace summit may struggle to foster unity on Gaza conflict

(Reuters) -Egypt holds a summit on the Gaza crisis on Saturday amid growing fears of a wider Middle East war but the absence of a top official from Israel’s main ally the U.S. and some other leaders has dampened expectations for what it can achieve.

The hastily-convened Cairo Peace Summit as the conflict still rages will bring together several Arab and European heads of state and government, alongside foreign ministers.

They will meet as Israel readies a ground assault on Gaza following the Oct. 7 attack by Hamas that killed 1,400 people. More than 4,100 Palestinians have been killed in Israel’s counteroffensive, amid a growing humanitarian crisis in Gaza.

China said its envoy for Middle East issues Zhai Jun would attend, while Russia said it would be represented by Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov. There was no word as of 1700 GMT on who would represent the United States.

Egypt has said little about the aims of the gathering, beyond an Oct. 15 statement by the Egyptian presidency that the summit would cover recent developments involving the crisis in Gaza and the future of the Palestinian issue.

“There is no precise overview of the participants so far. Much is still in flux,” said one European source.

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz and British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak will not attend, while there has been no official word on whether French President Emmanuel Macron will go.

A senior EU official said there had been discussions about a common summit declaration but there were still “differences” so it was not clear if there would be a text in the end.

The official said European Council President Charles Michel and EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell planned to go to Cairo, although they faced a scramble to get there in time as they were both in Washington on Friday for a US-EU summit.

Arab countries have voiced anger at Israel’s unprecedented bombardment and siege of Gaza, home to 2.3 million people.

Clashes on Israel’s border with Lebanon and attempted attacks by Iranian-backed forces elsewhere have fuelled fears of a spillover, particularly if a ground offensive proves bloody, while growing anti-Islamic and anti-Semitic harassment around the world has raised security concerns in many countries.

European countries have struggled to settle on a united approach to the crisis, beyond condemning Hamas’s attack, after days of confusion and mixed messaging.

Egypt has been trying to channel humanitarian relief to Gaza through the Rafah crossing, the one access point not controlled by Israel, but aid has piled up on the Egyptian side.

President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi said on Wednesday Egyptians in their millions would oppose any forced displacement of Palestinians into Sinai, adding that any such move would turn the Egyptian peninsula into a base for attacks against Israel.

Egypt’s position reflects Arab fears that Palestinians could again flee or be forced from their homes en masse, as they were during the war surrounding Israel’s creation in 1948.

Jordan’s King Abdullah and Sisi both said on Thursday that Palestinians should not be forcibly displaced and that Israel was “imposing collective punishment” on the inhabitants of Gaza by bombing civilians.

Israeli officials, including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, have said they will wipe out Hamas in retribution for the attack. But Israel has no obvious endgame in sight, with no clear plan for how to govern the Palestinian enclave afterwards, according to eight regional and Western officials with knowledge of the conflict.

Some of U.S. President Joe Biden’s aides are concerned that while Israel may craft an effective plan to inflict lasting damage to Hamas, it has yet to formulate an exit strategy, a source in Washington familiar with the matter said.

The summit is scheduled to be opened by the Egyptian president at 10 a.m. Saturday (0700 GMT).

(Reporting by Reuters bureaux; Writing by William Maclean; Editing by Edmund Blair, Philippa Fletcher and Diane Craft)