Al-Ahram Weekly Online   28 August - 3 September 2008
Issue No. 912
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Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

'Absolutely no breakthrough'

Cairo hosts yet another round of talks with Palestinian factions, the US secretary of state makes her 18th visit to the region and Israel releases 198 Palestinian prisoners. But is there any real progress on the ground?

Cairo hosts yet another round of talks with Palestinian factions, the US secretary of state makes her 18th visit to the region and Israel releases 198 Palestinian prisoners. But is there any real progress on the ground?

As Al-Ahram Weekly went to press on Wednesday bilateral talks between the Palestinian resistance movement Islamic Jihad and Egypt's General Intelligence Chief Omar Suleiman were winding up. What was revealed to the public about the closed meetings did little to suggest progress had been made in the complicated situation across Egypt's northeastern borders.

Mohamed El-Hindi, a Jihad leader in Gaza who attended the meetings, told the Weekly his organisation had accepted Egypt's invitation to discuss the many "thorny" Palestinian issues even if no progress was made on any of them. "There are two Palestinian governments, one in Gaza, the other in the West Bank. Hundreds of Palestinians are rounded up on daily basis and there's a vicious blockade on the Palestinians in Gaza. This is why we came to Cairo," he said.

While Egyptian officials spoke of "pushing" the "peace process forward", El-Hindi declared it dead.

"Realities on the ground have changed," he said, alluding to the now entrenched position of Hamas in Gaza and the declining popularity of the Palestinian Authority leadership in the West Bank. "The situation requires new thinking."

Jihad sources say talks with Suleiman revealed no progress in any of the issues discussed, the blockade on Gaza, inter- Palestinian divides or a prisoner exchange involving the Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, captured in 2006, and Palestinians held in Israeli jails.

Suleiman's next bilateral meetings will be with delegates representing the Popular and Democratic Fronts for the Liberation of Palestine. Neither Fatah nor Hamas were invited to the talks. The two movements are expected to meet with Suleiman sometime during Ramadan.

While the Jihad meeting was going on in Cairo, Israeli Defence Minister Ehud Barak held a one and a half hour closed meeting in Alexandria with President Hosni Mubarak. In a press conference after the meeting, Barak praised Egypt's efforts in controlling the tunnels between Egypt and Gaza. He also described Egypt's role in freeing Shalit as "central". Barak added that his talks with Mubarak had covered regional issues such as Iran's nuclear activity and Hizbullah.

The meetings coincided with a visit by US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories. The visit -- her 18th in the region-- made no breakthroughs. During a meeting with Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and chief Palestinian negotiator Ahmed Qurei, Rice stressed that "peace talks should proceed."

Palestinian-Israeli "peace talks", though, remain deadlocked over a host of final status issues, including Jerusalem, the right of return and the future of illegal Jewish settlements. Palestinian officials are beginning to use words such as "uncertainty", "unpredictability" and "precariousness" to describe the next few months which will see an end to the Bush administration and the premiership of Ehud Olmert.

While diplomatic smiles were rife in Ramallah during the latest meeting between Rice and her host, PA President Mahmoud Abbas, Palestinian officials couldn't hide their frustration with the continued failure of the American-led peace process.

"The Americans are focussing mainly on the 'continuation of the process' rather than on tackling the issues," said Nimr Hammad, chief advisor to Abbas.

Before Rice arrived in Israel, the Israeli group Peace Now published a report showing that Jewish settlement expansion in the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, had increased by 500 per cent in 2008. Rice, and her Israeli counterpart Livni, reacted coolly to the report. Such "unilateral acts" were detrimental to the peace process, said the US secretary of state. Livni even claimed settlement activities were on the decline.

Meanwhile, the Israeli government this week released 198 Palestinian prisoners, the majority of them members of Palestinian security agencies. Israeli officials labelled the release -- which included two veteran inmates who have served 32 and 28 years in Israeli jails -- a "gesture of goodwill" towards Abbas intended to "strengthen him" vis-à-vis Hamas. No Hamas- or Islamic Jihad-affiliated prisoners were included.

Israel, which holds up to 10,000 Palestinian political prisoners, continues to round up large numbers of Palestinians on daily basis. According to Palestinian sources the Israeli army last week arrested more Palestinians than they released Monday.

Israel has also refused to release Marwan Al-Barghouti, one of the most popular Fatah leaders in the West Bank and a favourite to succeed Abbas.

While Fatah and Abbas stand to benefit from the high-profile release of the prisoners any advantage is likely to prove short- lived if no breakthrough in the talks with Israel is reached, say observers.

Moreover, Abbas faces hard choices ahead, not only because of the imminent departure of the two men (Bush and Olmert) he counted on for the creation of a viable Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, but also because of domestic troubles.

Abbas must be aware the rift between Fatah and Hamas is seriously undermining the entire Palestinian cause, providing Israel with a pretext to create "facts" on the ground. He also realises that unless he comes up with a real political achievement, namely a final status agreement with Israel that will end the 41- year-old Israeli military occupation, his political survival is at stake.

With peace talks deadlocked it is almost certain Abbas will have to justify his continued leadership to the Palestinian people. There are reports he intends to nominate himself for a second term, especially if Al-Barghouti remains behind bars in Israel.

Vis-à-vis Hamas, Abbas seems to be using a double-pronged strategy. On the one hand, he and other PA officials make general statements about their desire to restore national unity while at the same time Abbas's security agencies continued to round up Hamas political activists and shut down or take over Islamic charitable and educational institutions.

Few Palestinians hold out any hope for the Egyptian-sponsored interfactional talks in Cairo. According to a Hamas source in Gaza this latest initiative "has not been taken very seriously" by the movement. The Hamas leadership, he said, feels that Egypt's efforts tend to contribute to tightening the blockade on Gaza in an attempt to turn the population against the Hamas government of Ismail Haniyeh and boost Abbas's leverage in the Strip.

"We expect absolutely no breakthroughs in the dialogue," he said.

Reported by Khaled Amayreh in the West Bank, Amira Howeidy in Cairo and Saleh Al-Naami in Gaza

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