Al-Ahram Weekly   Al-Ahram Weekly
17 - 23 August 2000
Issue No. 495
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875 Issues navigation Current Issue Previous Issue Back Issues

Front Page

Sprinting an extra mile

While Dennis Ross, US Middle East envoy, is due today in Israel for talks with Israeli and Palestinian negotiators, Cairo has for days been the scene of feverish activity to further the chances of a possible peace deal, culminating in the arrival of a delegation of the most senior Palestinian negotiators -- Mahmoud Abbas, Ahmed Qureia, Saeb Erekat and Yasser Abed Rabbo -- late on Monday.

Ross said Tuesday that the US was still willing to call a new Middle East peace summit but only if Israeli and Palestinian leaders are ready to make historic concessions.

"President [Bill] Clinton made it clear that he is prepared to get them together again if he is satisfied that there is a readiness to make decisions," noted Ross.

Yesterday, Palestinian Minister of Planning Nabil Shaath said that Cairo was attempting to reinvigorate the peace process by helping the Palestinians find ways to prepare for any upcoming summit. "Cairo is trying, together with the Palestinians, to find a formula on Jerusalem and other issues that will protect our interests and rights," Shaath added.

Before the Palestinian delegation left Cairo on Tuesday Foreign Minister Amr Moussa told journalists that Egypt would continue "consultations with all the Arab, Israeli and American parties in the coming few days," disclosing that while the Palestinian delegation was in Cairo he had received the Egyptian Ambassador to Israel Mohamed Bassiouni, and talked to Acting Israeli Foreign Minister and Chief Negotiator Shlomo Ben Ami over the phone.

A source in the Egyptian Foreign Ministry told Al-Ahram Weekly that "the two negotiating parties are showing keen interest in reaching a deal before Clinton leaves the White House." But what are the chances of seeing such a deal? "They were less a few weeks ago," answered the diplomat.

Asked if the Palestinians were now ready to accept what was floated as a proposal of Joint Palestinian-Israeli-international sovereignty over East Jerusalem and Al-Aqsa Mosque, the diplomat said: "It is too early to talk about this right now... there are several ideas on Jerusalem that still need to be crystallised." As for the question of refugees, he disclosed that "there are more ideas now than before on format and numbers."

The chances of a Palestinian declaration of an independent state on 13 September, "with or without an agreement with Israel", appear to be diminishing as consultations over a potential deal, both within and without the region, gather pace.

Last Sunday President Hosni Mubarak told a press conference in Borg Al-Arab: "I hope we can reach a solution, [but] whether it's before or after 13 September, I cannot say." Asked by the Weekly, whether his statements implied that the declaration of Palestinian statehood will be postponed, Mubarak was non-committal: "Maybe. I don't know, but I think it may be postponed. We don't want any clash between the two parties. If a solution is found just before the 13th there will be no problem. If not, we have to be very patient, and practical."

Mubarak's chief political adviser Osama El-Baz expressed the same position in a meeting with members of the Foreign Press Association in Cairo last week. "We will cross that bridge when we come to it," he said. "We have to believe that it is doable, that the gap can be closed. However, if by the first of week of September it does not appear that the deadline will be met, we have to put our heads together and prepare [a plan] for crisis management so that the situation does not get out of hand."

Egypt does not want to see total failure by 12 September "because at a time like that extremists usually carry the day," warned Baz.

"We are contacting both sides, receiving envoys and messages from all parties and will continue being a facilitator, a role very similar to the US."

Meanwhile, Arafat's 25-day bid to mobilise support for his future state failed to produce tangible results. As hopes for convening an Arab summit receded, Arafat embarked on a whirlwind international tour seeking support, but with little success.

Summing up Arafat's predicament, Hanan Ashrawi, former member of the Palestinian Authority and member of the Palestinian delegation to Camp David told the Weekly: "I believe that there are many countries that give high priority to American advice and even American instructions." (see full interview, p.6)

How far is Arafat willing to go in making "the historic compromise" Ross spoke of on the eve of his visit to the region? Reneging on the declaration of an independent state by 13 September might well be the first step. It will undoubtedly cause Arafat some "loss of his credibility", warned a joint statement by the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine and the Islamic National Salvation Party last Tuesday. But it has always been the issues of Jerusalem and of refugees that are most likely to wreak havoc in the region. And on these, there is no clear answer yet as to how much credibility can be sacrificed.

Nevine Khalil; Dina Ezzat; Sherine Bahaa

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