CAIRO, Egypt (CNN) -- Egyptian President Mohamed Morsy's efforts to broker an end to the Israel-Gaza conflict highlight the delicate balancing act he faces as his nation's first freely elected leader.
Egypt has been the go-between in many previous Israeli-Palestinian disputes. But while longtime Egyptian strongman Hosni Mubarak was hostile to the Palestinian Islamist movement Hamas, which rules Gaza, Morsy's Muslim Brotherhood is the group's political cousin. And although Morsy leads a population with deep historical sympathy for the Palestinians, he has pledged to maintain Egypt's peace treaty with Israel.
"Egypt is the most pivotal state in this particular game of diplomacy now," said Fawaz Gerges, a professor of international relations at the
Under Hosni Mubarak, the country's security forces had suppressed its own Islamists in the Muslim Brotherhood, even jailing Morsy at one point. That has given Morsy and his government influence with Hamas that Mubarak, a product of Egypt's military establishment, never had.
"Hamas listens to Mohamed Morsy," Gerges said. "Hamas looks up to Egypt now, at this particular stage, and that is why Egypt has emerged as the most important state vis-a-vis Hamas and Gaza."
Morsy has used his intelligence chief, Mohammed Shehata, to spearhead separate talks between Israel and Hamas. Shehata played a major role in the release of Gilad Shalit, the Israeli soldier held captive by Hamas for more than five years, and has good contacts with Israeli intelligence officials.
Israeli President Shimon Peres praised Morsy's mediation efforts Tuesday in an appearance with U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, calling them "constructive" and "a pleasant surprise."
"I hope he will continue this task, which is necessary for all parts of the Middle East," Peres said.
Morsy took office at the end of June, nearly a year and a half after the revolt that toppled Mubarak. The U.S.-educated engineer quickly rattled Western nerves by announcing he would work to free Sheikh Omar Abdel-Rahman, now serving a life sentence in the United States in a conspiracy case related to the 1993 World Trade Center bombing; and by attending the August summit of the Non-Aligned Movement, held in Iran, the first visit by an Egyptian leader since the Islamic revolution in 1979.
But he also took a swing at Iran's ally Syria during that conference, calling the embattled government of President Bashar al-Assad "an oppressive regime that has lost its legitimacy" and calling for support for opposition groups trying to overthrow him.
When sniping across the border separating Gaza from Israel erupted into open warfare last week, Morsy put the blame squarely on Israel. Egypt recalled its ambassador to Israel. Morsy also called the Israeli bombardment of the territory "a blatant aggression against humanity" and dispatched his prime minister, Hesham Kandil, to Gaza for talks with Palestinian officials, a step Mubarak would have been unlikely to take.
That put Egypt at odds with the United States, which contributes about $1.3 billion in military and economic aid to Cairo every year. U.S. and several European leaders have put most of the blame for the current crisis on Hamas, saying Israel has a right to protect itself from rockets fired by Palestinian militants.
Egypt needs Western support to help revive its economy, which went into a tailspin when the uprising against Mubarak broke out in January 2011. And its 1979 Camp David accords with Israel remain the cornerstone of what peace has been achieved in the turbulent region.
When the latest Hamas-Israel fighting flared, cabinet chief Mohamed Refa'a al-Tahtawi said Egypt would continue to observe that pact, but he added, "Respecting a peace treaty does not mean to stay idle or indifferent to what is going on along our borders."
Morsy faces pressure from the Egyptian public to take a tougher line against Israel. An April 2011 poll by the Pew Global Research Project found that 54% of Egyptians want to abandon the Egypt-Israel peace treaty, while 36% want to keep it in place.
While Morsy's government remains committed to that pact, Egypt has opened the Rafah border crossing into Gaza, a marked departure from Mubarak, who kept that portal closed during the 2008-2009 conflict between Hamas and Israel. More than 500 Egyptian activists were allowed into Gaza this week in a show of solidarity with the Palestinians, waving Palestinian flags and chanting, "Israel is the enemy."