3 - 9 February 2000
Issue No. 467
|Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875|
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But what comes after
It was a confrontation between Foreign Minister Amr Moussa and Israeli cabinet Minister Shemon Peres -- chief advocate of a "New Middle East" -- that reaffirmed the sad fact that current Arab-Israeli negotiations are unlikely to bring an end to the historic conflict between the two sides, though they may well change its character.
Earlier this week, in a session of the World Economic Forum annual meeting in Davos, Moussa and Peres engaged in a ferocious argument over his insistence that Israel does not want to be a rich country in an island of poverty and destitution, and his railing against Arab countries for not being more cooperative with Israel.
"This argument is very telling of what the Israelis have in mind. It is not peace in the real sense that they want. They want a settlement by which they get their security arrangements, and the economic and political privileges of full integration in the region in return for giving the Arabs the minimum of their rights," commented an Egyptian diplomat.
The Moussa-Peres argument was one issue discussed in a meeting that Moussa held with US Secretary of State Madeline Albright in Davos.
The pace and terms of Arab-Israeli cooperation was also the subject of much discussion in Moscow on Tuesday in the inaugural session of multilateral talks, resumed after a four year hiatus.
"Movement on regional cooperation issues depends to a large degree on the achievement of real and sustained progress in bilateral negotiations and on the continued existence of a positive environment conducive to the peace process as a whole," Moussa stated.
Four working groups convened at Moscow, dealing with regional economic development, the environment, Palestinian refugees and water issues, will start their work in a few weeks. A committee dealing with disarmament and regional security arrangements could meet in July. The work of the disarmament committee, formed with the others under the 1991 Madrid conference, has always stumbled over Israeli refusal to open its nuclear facilities for international inspection.
Egypt makes the work of this committee conditional on Israel submitting to international inspection of its nuclear arsenal.
"The arms control group will not be able to meet without a global agenda which includes all the problems that have been suspended, beginning with the issue of nuclear armament in the region," Moussa said. He added: "Israeli nuclear armament and the creation of a zone free from weapons of mass destruction in the Middle East must be addressed".
Meanwhile, Israeli-Palestinian and Israeli-Syrian negotiations are facing a tough time. Syrian sources say that Damascus is not comfortable with the Israeli request to sign a framework agreement because it prefers a holistic deal with water tight dates and phases of implementation to narrow the margin of Israeli manoeuvering. For this agreement to be reached the two parties will need to work on bridging their differences over the nature of Israeli withdrawal from the Golan Heights and subsequent security arrangements.
The Israeli-Syrian talks have been shadowed by the recent confrontation between Israeli occupation forces and Hizbollah in south Lebanon. Israel's intentions on reaction are still not very clear.
On Monday, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak warned darkly that Syria has to understand that the situation in Lebanon carries with it a danger of escalation that "will hurt us all" and that Israel cannot hold peace negotiations when the Syrians are not preventing Hizbollah from attacking the Israeli soldiers in the security zone.
Visiting the south Lebanon post where three Israeli soldiers had been killed last week, Barak said Israel would respond to the attacks in the way, timing and mode of its choice. This suggests that Israel's response will be within the parameters of the 1996 April Understanding reached after the Grapes of Wrath operation -- as were Hezbollah's actions -- rather than involving attacks on power stations or other facilities in Beirut.
Fortuitously or otherwise, Yasser Arafat chose this moment to open a little cold front of his own against the Israeli prime minister. Addressing the World Economic Forum in Davos on Monday, the Palestinian leader delivered an unusually harsh denunciation of his "partner in peace". He accused Israel of proceeding "very, very slowly" in both the interim and final status negotiations, warning all that Israel runs the risk of wasting this historic opportunity to achieve a just, comprehensive and lasting peace.
Against such blasts, Barak will no doubt try to thaw the climate a little when he meets Arafat in Gaza today. But here too the Israeli leader is likely to find himself between a rock and a hard place. For he surely knows the only way the Palestinians will quietly accept his desire for a deferral on the 13 February deadline for a Framework Agreement on the final status issues is by his offering them something meaningful in the meantime. For Arafat, this would mean that Israel's next redeployment transfer to Palestinian Authority full control of at least some of the eastern villages that border Jerusalem.
While in Cairo on Sunday, Barak discussed the future of the Palestinian, Syrian and Lebanese tracks with President Hosni Mubarak, asking for greater Egyptian involvement. The response was made conditional on the degree of Israeli commitment to honour its obligations. Speaking in Davos about the potentials of Middle East peace-making, Foreign Minister Moussa argued that the question the region faces is not whether the peace process fails. "The cardinal question," he said, is "what [comes] after the peace process".
Ahmed Nafie in Damascus;
Graham Usher in Jerusalem;
Abdel-Malik Khalil in Moscow;
Gamil Ibrahim in Davos;
Dina Ezzat in Cairo