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Can Obama's diplomatic campaign soften Arab hearts?

CAIRO — Barack Obama’s Middle East envoy George Mitchell was in town today, kicking off a swing through the region to launch the Obama administration's new effort to secure a lasting cease-fire between Israel and Hamas.

I think it’s significant that Mitchell chose Cairo as his first stop. President Hosni Mubarak made the strategic choice in the latest conflict to back the U.S. and Israel. With $2 billion in aid flowing from the States annually, Mubarak was quick to accommodate U.S. interests by maintaining the blockade on Gaza, only allowing a trickle of medical aid to flow across the border during the war.

But this cost Mubarak dearly in the eyes of the Arab world. Mobs stormed Egyptian embassies in other parts of the region while rhetoric flowing from Damascus and Tehran only served to widen the factional chasm here.

In this context, it’s significant that Mitchell came here first because it will help bolster Mubarak’s claim that he, all along, has been acting in the best interests of a lasting peace. It also helps reassert Egypt’s historical legacy as the region’s diplomatic leader.

While here, Mitchell met with intelligence chief Omar Suleiman. This is significant because, though Suleiman is something of a public figure, he’ll be the one working to stop the flow of arms into Gaza. It shows that the Obama administration is serious about working on the details of a plan that will, in the short term, lead to a sustainable cease-fire.

All of this comes a day after fighting reignited in Gaza, killing an Israeli soldier and a Palestinian farmer.

I visited the tunnels along the Egypt-Gaza border last week and it seems clear to me that Israel won’t ever be able to destroy all of them. Smugglers told me it takes only four months to build a tunnel and I saw laborers working to repair the damaged shafts. If Israel wants to stop the flow of arms, the key will be to persuade Egypt to get serious about keeping the weapons from reaching the border.

Mitchell has said that he would press Egyptian officials and strategize with them about how best to stop the arms. While the government has rejected proposals that would bring a greater foreign troop presence to the border, it has signaled its willingness to consider a German plan that would bring an international technical presence to the border to help out there.

It’s important to watch, going forward, if reports emerge that weapons are still flowing through, whether it looks like a failure by the border patrols or whether it seems that Egypt is turning a blind eye in order to regain some of the political capital it lost with the Arab world.

On the street level, it looks as though Obama’s charm offensive in the region is creating some early positive results. Many people over the last two days, even the poor and uneducated, have indicated that they had heard about Mitchell’s trip. Even more than that, though, there is a buzz surrounding Obama’s interview with Al Arabiya. I think this move pleased as many Egyptians as it stunned a lot of Americans.

I had the impression, after Obama’s election, that a lot of Egyptians had become impossibly cynical in their views of the U.S. government. Early reaction from here shows that some may be softening their opinions.

The question now is where Obama will deliver that much discussed first 100 days speech in a Muslim country. In Egypt, at least, it looks as though he’d have a receptive audience.

(Also — How Egypt views Obama)