On Cairo's shoulders
Israel is still counting on Egypt to deliver Shalit -- and in a way, the stability of Gaza, Dina Ezzat
The visit of Israeli Minister of Defence Ehud Barak to Alexandria on Tuesday for talks with President Hosni Mubarak at the Ras Al-Teen Palace was unusual for Israeli officials who are usually, in fact almost always, received in Sharm El-Sheikh. However, the agenda of the Mubarak-Barak talks was ordinary: the ongoing (more off than on) negotiations to release Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit in return for the freedom of a few hundred Palestinian prisoners and the extension of a fragile truce between Israel and Hamas in Gaza.
In press statements following his talks with the president and with Defence Minister Hussein Tantawi and General Intelligence Chief Omar Suleiman, Barak sounded uneasy about the prospects of an early end to the over two-year captivity of Shalit by an Islamist resistance Palestinian movement loyal to Hamas. The Israeli minister was courteous enough to his Egyptian hosts to avoid making untactful threats against Gaza or Hamas. However, he was not short on indirect warnings that the durability of the ceasefire with Hamas is in many ways dependant on achieving progress in the currently stalled negotiations to conclude the prisoner swap deal that Egypt has been mediating for over 18 months. "We want calm to be stabilised in and around Gaza and we hope it will not take very long before we see the release of Shalit," Barak said.
And while expressing disappointment over the slow and often interrupted pace of the negotiations to release Shalit, Barak was not short on praise of Egyptian mediation in this regard as "simply indispensable". The Israeli minister did not exclude the possibility of the inclusion of some European input to the ongoing mediation, as some Hamas sources had been suggesting in the wake of a successful prisoners swap deal concluded by the Germans between Israel and Hizbullah earlier this year. Should this be the case, Barak hastened to add, Egypt would be consulted and any new effort would be tailored to complement, not replace, Egyptian mediation.
Meanwhile, Egyptian official sources say that President Mubarak pressed upon the visiting Israeli minister the need for his government to ease the economic pressure it is imposing on Gaza in order to avoid the deterioration of a volatile humanitarian situation in the narrow and densely populated Strip on the borders with Egypt. Sources add that Barak seemed willing to show more Israeli flexibility on the transport of food and other necessary commodities into Gaza.
However, the Rafah crossing point, the only link Gazans have with the outer world away from direct Israeli control, did not seem to be subject to much decision-making during the Ras Al-Teen talks, according to Egyptian sources. The crossing has been closed since the Hamas takeover of Gaza in the summer of 2007 and was only opened for a few days for strict humanitarian purposes, except when it was forced open by frustrated Palestinian masses in January this year. This week, Hamas leaders in Gaza made a renewed appeal for Cairo to open the crossing in direct and exclusive cooperation with Hamas. However, Egypt, and for that matter Israel, insist that the operation of the crossing point can only be administered in accordance with the 2005 agreement that the US facilitated between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, then in control of Gaza, with the assistance of European observers.
On Tuesday, while reiterating the usual Israeli line on the Rafah crossing point, Barak alluded that the completion of the prisoners swap deal would help ease the Israeli stance on the operation of the crossing.
Judging by the statements made by Barak in Alexandria on Tuesday, a peaceful and realistic management of Gaza under Hamas seems to be the most that the current Israeli government -- to be dissolved soon with the expected resignation of its prime minister -- could offer. All hopes for any elementary peace deal with the Palestinians, even as little as a framework shelf agreement, seems unlikely. "We wish to see a breakthrough before the end of the year but I don't feel confident [about such prospects] and I don't see an agreement emerging out of the [current negotiations]," Barak said.
Egyptian officials had no more upbeat accounts to offer in the two-hour talks by the Israeli minister in Egypt. They, too, seem to think that the maximum that Israel can give is to avoid any unnecessary confrontation with Hamas in Gaza and to show more patience in working towards the release of Shalit.