Running against the clock
reviews progress in and opinion regarding Egyptian mediation efforts on the Palestinian-Israeli front
President Hosni Mubarak and Jordanian Monarch King Abdullah met this week in Sharm El-Sheikh to synchronise diplomatic and intelligence efforts on the Palestinian-Israeli front. According to diplomatic sources, the prime objective of both Egypt and Jordan at this point is to sustain the fragile truce between Hamas and Israel. The second objective, the same sources add, is to move on to phase two of their mediation and secure the release, in return for the release of a few hundred Palestinian prisoners, of Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit captured two years ago by an Islamist resistance movement loyal to Hamas. The third objective is to support Palestinian-Israeli negotiations that aim to lay down the outlines of a final status agreement -- even if not fully developed -- before US President George W Bush exits the White House later this year.
Egyptian sources say that Egypt is keener to work on the first two objectives and doubts the ability of Palestinian and Israeli negotiators to deliver the third. However, they add that Egypt is still willing to provide support. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas met earlier this week with President Mubarak in Sharm El-Sheikh on the sidelines of the African Union summit. During the meeting Abbas expressed hope that "something could come out" of current negotiations. "Despite our doubts we are not going to withdraw any support that is requested," one Egyptian source said. According to this source, Egypt, in coordination with the Palestinian Authority (PA) and Jordan, has demanded that the Arab League abandon earlier plans to hold an Arab foreign ministers meeting this summer to express Arab dismay at the outcome of the Annapolis process that last November promised a final status agreement before the end of 2008.
According to the same source, Egyptian mediation efforts are not proceeding as smoothly as before. "We are not heading towards an impasse -- let us be clear about this. We are just going through the expected difficulties," he said. The difficulties, he added, are that Israel wants to release the smallest number possible of Palestinian prisoners and wants to release them in stages following the release of Shalit. Israel also wants released Hamas and Jihad activists to be put under permanent surveillance. It insists that it would have the right to target those released if suspected of involvement in any anti-Israeli activities, including the training of younger generation Hamas and Jihad activists.
For its part, Hamas wants the largest number possible of Palestinians facing life sentences to be released, and it "insists" that the swap should be "simultaneous" and with "European guarantees". The list of guarantees that an Egyptian official attributed to Hamas include facilitation of the transfer, and security, of released Palestinian prisoners, an end to the political embargo imposed on Hamas since its electoral victory in January 2006, and a package of economic aid for Gaza "under Hamas". Of Egypt, Hamas wants an end to the imprisonment of some of its activists in Egyptian prisons and that Rafah crossing point be administered away from all forms of Israeli intervention.
Egyptian sources say that some Hamas activists detained in Egyptian prisons were already released. As for Rafah, they say the crossing would "only operate for a few days once a month" to meet the needs of "humanitarian cases" until a deal is concluded to reopen it fully in accordance with the terms of a 2005 agreement involving the PA, Israel and the European Union. Above all, Hamas wants Egypt to end what it qualifies as "Egyptian bias" towards the PA/Fatah camp. Indeed, Hamas has explicitly told Egyptian negotiators that while it welcomes Cairo's input in potential national reconciliation dialogue, it would not accept Egypt as the sole mediator. According to sources, Hamas is not being subtle in expressing its scepticism of what it perceives as Egyptian intentions to gradually wrest back to the PA -- especially through a de facto extension of the presidency of Abbas, due to expire at the end of the year -- control of Gaza.
Neither the prisoner swap deal nor the inter- Palestinian talks will happen over night, Egyptian officials iterate. They add that the important thing is to make both happen, sooner rather than later. Initial indirect Hamas-Israel negotiations over prisoners, that Egyptian General Intelligence Chief Omar Suleiman is directly supervising, are proving tough and may take no less than eight weeks to conclude. Egypt is set to call upon all parties -- regional and international -- with influence over Hamas and Israel to contribute their efforts to securing a deal. "We know that this deal was near completion a few months ago, but that Iran intervened with Hamas to put it on hold for a while," complained one Egyptian source.
According to a seminar held Sunday by the Cairo-based International Centre for Futuristic and Strategic Studies, developments on the Palestinian-Israeli front, especially in the short term, will be most influenced by, if not held hostage to, regional and international developments. The influence of Iran on Hamas has to be acknowledged and dealt with, argued Hassan Abu Taleb, editor of the Arab Strategic Report produced annually by Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies. While joining several other participants in implicitly criticising Iranian influence, Abu Taleb stopped short of calling for further isolation of Iran. The tougher it gets for Iran, he suggested, the tougher it would be for regional players defined by Tehran as political adversaries to make inroads. According to Abu Taleb, Hamas and Hizbullah will always reflect Tehran's political line, simply because of their financial and political dependence on Iran.
Should it transpire, participants warned, a military strike on Iran by Israel would greatly damage negotiations between the Palestinians -- and for that matter Syrians and Lebanese -- with Israel. Conversely, according to Abu Taleb, the greater the prospects for an end to the diplomatic standoff between Tehran and the West are, the more likely it would be for Iran to encourage its political allies in the Arab world to show flexibility.
In the analysis of Palestinian professor of political science Essmat Abdel-Khaleq, positive management of adversarial regional, international and national relations was key to Egyptian mediators concluding the recent truce agreement between Hamas and Israel. "And any future deals would have to include a blend of [reciprocal] concessions and pressures," she said.
Hamas was not represented in the seminar while it was subject to much criticism, especially from Palestinian quarters, including Palestinian Ambassador to Egypt Nabil Amr and former Palestinian minister Hassan Asfour. Yet several participants -- including those who eschew Hamas's ideology of resistance -- argued the need for mediators to remain open to the possibility of pragmatic deals with Hamas. If Hamas continues more effectively than Fatah to police the truce with Israel, then it is with Hamas that deals should be discussed until Palestinian national reconciliation is achieved. According to Qadri Hefni, psychology professor at Ain Shams University, "at least the question has to be asked [if Hamas is more effective than other Palestinian parties]."
Participants agreed that the United States is unlikely to have a positive influence, neither under the outgoing administration, which has little leverage to exercise, nor under the next administration, be it one Democratic or Republican, due to obvious pro-Israel bias in Washington. According to American University in Cairo professor of political science Manar El-Shorbagi, the next US administration, whatever its colour, is likely to follow, more or less, the same Middle East policy guidelines of recent US administrations. The clearest hope for change is Barack Obama. But according to El-Shorbagi, Obama's choice of foreign policy advisors indicates that traditional pro-Israel bias will go unchallenged. "So those who expect that Obama will lend support to the Palestinian cause are much mistaken," she said.
For El-Shorbagi, even if the political movement supporting Obama managed to induce a more balanced approach towards the Palestinian-Israeli struggle, Obama would still be in no position -- and nor would he want to -- make any dramatic foreign policy changes when it comes to the Middle East.
According to Ezzedine Choukri-Fishere, director of the Arab-Israeli project of the International Crisis Group, an equal degree of realism should be applied to expectations of the European Union. The UN, Choukri-Fishere added, should be seen in the same light, especially in view of a pattern of declining support among UN member states for pro-Palestinian resolutions in the UN General Assembly.
Choukri-Fishere argues that the Arab world has to use international consensus on a two-state solution -- a Palestinian state established alongside Israel within 1967 borders and with part of East Jerusalem as its capital -- to serve Arab interests and improve life for Palestinians.