Al-Ahram Weekly Online   29 January - 4 February 2009
Issue No. 932
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

A new beginning?

As Egypt pursues Palestinian reconciliation and the reconstruction of Gaza it might be narrowing its distance from Hamas, Dina Ezzat reports

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Palestinian factions met in Cairo this week and Mitchell started his seven-day trip to the region with a meeting with Mubarak

It has been a successful week for General Intelligence Chief Omar Suleiman. The shrewd negotiator who is directly in charge of mediating between Hamas and Israel to secure a sustainable truce, and in parallel to strike a reconciliation deal between Hamas and Fatah, which controls the Palestinian Authority (PA), is said to have made a breakthrough on both tracks.

Informed Egyptian sources suggest that a truce between Hamas and Israel is almost in the offing. Some of the details of the truce are still under negotiation. Sources predict it will take another week, "more or less", to finalise whether or not the truce will start with six months in Gaza and be renewed for a year later in both Gaza and the West Bank. Also pending are the set of guarantees that Hamas wishes to have in relation to the smooth operation of crossing points linking Gaza with Israel as well as Egypt. However, the overall assessment is that progress has been made and that both Israel and Hamas are showing signs of settling down for a truce, probably for a year, monitored by the international community according to a mechanism that does not involve the direct stationing of troops in Gaza.

Meanwhile, in Cairo Monday afternoon, Azzam Al-Ahmed of Fatah, who headed a delegation of the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) for talks with Suleiman, declared that he held a meeting in the Egyptian capital with a representative from a Hamas delegation also in town for talks with Suleiman. "It was an extended meeting and we reviewed many issues. It was positive. We agreed to stay in touch. They will go back [to consult] and we should meet again soon," Al-Ahmed told a press conference that he held following the meeting.

According to Egyptian and Palestinian sources, Hamas and Fatah are still far apart on "almost everything". The two leading Palestinian factions cannot agree on a joint agenda to administer the Palestinian territories, or on relations with Israel. Hamas is still determined that reconciliation with Fatah requires the establishment of a national unity government that would support resistance on a long-term basis, even if a truce is accepted for the sake of short-term tactics, and that the PA would suspend all forms of security cooperation with Israel. Hamas also wants fair representation, in line with its expanding political standing, in the PLO.

For its part, Fatah wants Hamas to agree to a few years' suspension of armed resistance to give negotiations a chance under the new US administration. They also want Hamas to publicly announce its recognition of Israel and of negotiations as the way to pursue an independent Palestinian state within the 1967 borders. Fatah also wants close to a monopoly on arms in Gaza and the West Bank.

Egyptian mediators have successfully, sources suggest, offered formulations that could be sufficiently face-saving to both sides -- though more to Fatah than Hamas. According to these sources, it is not the formulations that have done the trick. It is rather the "new style" if not a "new spirit" that Egypt is adopting towards Hamas. Hamas, in the words of one Palestinian source, feels that it is treated more like a recognised political power.

The adjustment in Egyptian style towards Hamas is attributed to several factors. The keen interest of Egypt to contain developments in Gaza, despite all disagreements at the tactical and strategic levels, is offered by Egyptian officials as the main rationale for this adjustment. The "victory" of Hamas and the openness that the new US administration is showing towards Syria -- and is likely to show towards Iran -- are offered by Hamas as the explanation of this new style.

Both sides agree, however, that the mission of George Mitchell, the Middle East envoy of US President Barack Obama, that started Tuesday in Cairo is seen by all players as an opportunity to meet political objectives. Egyptian sources say that Hamas knows very well that Mitchell would only offer an end to the international ostracism of Hamas if the latter agrees to a truce and to join "a national accord government". For their part, Hamas sources suggest that to affirm its stance as the key player on the Middle East scene, Egypt has to have good contacts with Hamas. Mitchell's seven-day trip to the region that started with a meeting with President Hosni Mubarak Wednesday in Cairo is seen as a crucial factor in promoting a positive atmosphere on the truce and reconciliation fronts.

Egyptian and Arab diplomats in Cairo also suggest that the beginnings of a breakthrough on both the truce and reconciliation fronts could also be attributed to a new style, if fragile, of mediating Arab differences. "Reconciliation among the leading conflicting Arab capitals is not happening soon, but in the Kuwait summit there seemed to be a tacit agreement that differences had to be handled in a less polarised fashion," commented one Arab diplomat in Cairo.

In an interview accorded to Al-Manar TV Monday evening, Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad chose to adopt a cautious, and even courteous, tone in addressing Egyptian mediation between Fatah and Hamas. Al-Assad, whose relations with Cairo are still icy, expressed what was perceived in official quarters as "adequate" support. "What remains to be seen is whether or not the Syrian president will duly match his line of speech with sufficient support for Hamas proceeding ahead with the truce and reconciliation deals," said an Egyptian diplomatic source. Acknowledging the fact that Hamas's calculations are not overly influenced by the policy priorities of its allies, be they Syria, Qatar or Iran, the source suggested that the support of Damascus remains crucial in prompting a national reconciliation deal.

On Monday, Arab League Secretary-General Amr Moussa said that a meeting for the permanent representatives to the Arab organisation agreed that all public displays of disagreement among Arab countries should be suspended in order to allow intensive consultations that Moussa is planning aimed at promoting reconciliation among Arab capitals to proceed. Arab reconciliation, Arab diplomats agree, appears a prerequisite for Palestinian national reconciliation and for a sustainable truce between Hamas and Israel.

Moreover, the road towards reconstruction in Gaza appears dependent on Palestinian and Arab reconciliation. Western diplomats in Cairo say that their taxpayers' money cannot be spent to rebuild Gaza infrastructure only to be lost in the next wave of "military action". And in the assessment of some of these diplomats, confrontation is inevitable absent reconciliation. "We cannot work with an Arab world that is fighting amongst itself. We go to one Arab capital we hear one thing, and we go to another Arab capital and we hear the opposite. Arabs have to agree amongst themselves," complained one Western diplomat who spoke on condition of anonymity. "Some Arab [capitals] are telling us that we have to accommodate Hamas if we want stability in Gaza. Others are telling us exactly the opposite. Who are we supposed to listen to?" he added.

In press statements Monday, Moussa said that the reconstruction of Gaza should not be held hostage to "senseless disagreements among Palestinians". The Arab League, which has decided to establish a Higher Committee for the Reconstruction of Gaza, like Iran did, is planning to directly commission and supervise reconstruction schemes. This is not the same approach that the European Union, the biggest economic donor to Palestine, is adopting. According to sources that took part in a reconstruction meeting that was held in Riyadh Saturday and another meeting on the same issue in Brussels Sunday, the Europeans are asking for "a Palestinian government that all Palestinians recognise and that the world can deal with".

During the next month Cairo is planning to hold three consecutive meetings, slated to start in the second half of the month. The first entails separate Egyptian encounters with representatives of Hamas and Israel to announce the beginning of a truce. The second is for Palestinian factions to agree on a national accord government. And the third, which will take place in Sharm El-Sheikh with a wide international presence, is a Gaza reconstruction donor conference. These three meetings are in line with the three foreign policy objectives that Foreign Minister Ahmed Abul-Gheit set: truce; Palestinian reconciliation; and the reconstruction of Gaza. The ultimate objective is that once these three targets are met, the road would be set to pick up the pieces of the peace process and to encourage newly inaugurated US President Obama to give it a serious push.

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