Talks between Hamas and Fatah sponsored by Egypt have been delayed once again -- till 25 July, writes Saleh Al-Naami
The two parties will meet for three days starting 25 July to hold the seventh and supposedly last round of national dialogue. The delay in signing an accord was to give Fatah and Hamas the chance for further consultations with the view of resolving remaining questions.
However, the two parties sounded optimistic at the end of the sixth round and said that prospects of a breakthrough have improved. Both parties held a joint meeting with Egypt's General Intelligence Chief Omar Suleiman on Monday, which Hamas leader Mahmoud Zahar described as a turning point. He said after the meeting that things are moving toward an easing of tensions in the dialogue especially on the issue of political detainees.
Azzam Al-Ahmed, head of the Fatah parliamentary group, said the meeting with Suleiman saved the sixth round from failure. He said that the two sides had agreed on a mechanism to resolve the issue of detainees, but he did not mention details.
The two parties missed the 7 July target date initially set by Egypt for signing an accord that would lay out an electoral law, define the make- up of security forces and of a committee to liaise between the two parties before an election in 2010.
According to Weekly sources, the Egyptians had prepared a comprehensive plan for ending the domestic rift and for reaching a truce between Israel and the Palestinian factions. Trusted sources say that Egypt's plan proposed Palestinian reconciliation, a resolution to the issue of Hamas's capture of Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, and a comprehensive truce between the Palestinian factions and Israel. The plan was reportedly welcomed by the Americans and accepted with reservations by the Israelis. President Abbas's visits to several Arab countries -- and specifically the capitals Cairo, Damascus and Riyadh -- took place within this context.
The Egyptian proposal called for the formation of a body that represents all the Palestinian factions and that will run the Gaza Strip until January 2010, when presidential and parliamentary elections will be held. This proposed body would be composed of 12 Hamas representatives, 10 Fatah representatives, and a representative each from the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine (DFLP), the Palestinian People's Party, and Al-Saiqa. Islamic Jihad has declined to participate.
The proposal gave President Abbas the task to form this body's ultimate authority since the United States, the European Union, and even Arab states don't recognise Hamas's rule in the Gaza Strip. Fayyad's government in Ramallah would assume responsibility for administrative and financial affairs and for communicating with international bodies on the Gaza Strip. The Egyptian plan also included allocating the $5 billion promised during the Sharm El-Sheikh donor conference to reconstruction, as funnelled through Abbas and PA institutions. Hamas, Fatah and all the other Palestinian factions would be obliged to respect election results and to accept the Palestinian Legislative Authority (PLC) that elections produce. Fatah and Hamas would also have to stop arrest campaigns they've directed towards one another.
The Cairo plan also called for Egyptian and Arab experts to supervise joint security forces that are supposed to be created in the Gaza Strip and that will possibly include Egyptian and European Union participation. These forces would be mandated by the United Nations, and will partly work to prevent the targeting of Israel from Gaza. Also, according to the proposed plan, a prisoner exchange agreement would swap Shalit for Palestinian detainees, although the Netanyahu government has made it clear that it's not prepared to release "heavy weight" prisoners and that it rejects releasing those the Olmert government previously refused to release. Despite this, the Netanyahu government has suggested that it can show some flexibility on this issue, although it hasn't offered further details in this regard.
If a prisoner exchange agreement is ultimately struck, Israel will reopen the crossings between Israel and the Gaza Strip and allow the entry of all goods through them. Foreign experts and inspectors will assure that cement, steel and construction materials are only used for reconstruction and economic ventures, not for military objectives. For its part, Egypt will reopen the Rafah Crossing, and PA and European monitors will be stationed on the Palestinian side while Israel continues to monitor the space with cameras, as provided for in the US- brokered 2005 movement and access agreement.
Israeli sources have made it clear that the Netanyahu government has reservations over the plan due to Tel Aviv's fear that Hamas could win in the upcoming elections, which would mean granting Hamas a secure foothold in the West Bank. Yet the Israeli army seems interested in a truce that would improve security in southern Israel, not to mention the possibility of freeing Shalit, and Egypt moving to more effectively stop smuggling operations.
Army leaders have made it clear that a truce at this time would be in Israel's interest since major changes in international circumstances now prevent it from waging a military campaign on the Gaza Strip. Israel assumes that the administration of US President Barack Obama is highly sensitive towards Israeli military behaviour, and Tel Aviv is aware of the harm caused by its most recent war on Gaza. Some people in Israel are saying that Netanyahu will find himself accepting the Egyptian proposals in the end due to the Obama administration's enthusiasm for them, especially given Netanyahu's attempts to reach a formulation that will both guarantee the continuation of his right-wing government and satisfy Obama. The Israeli newspaper Yediot Aharonot has reported that the Israeli government intends to propose to the US administration that settlement activity in the West Bank be frozen for three months, with the exception of buildings already under construction, and that the PA and Israel commence negotiations during this period.
The paper also reported that Israeli Defence Minister Ehud Barak presented this proposal on Netanyahu's behalf to the US administration via US Middle East envoy George Mitchell during their meeting last Monday. It wrote that Barak's new overture comes after the attempt made by Netanyahu's personal envoy, Yitzhak Molcho, who met secretly with Mitchell but failed to convince him of the Israeli viewpoint on settlement activity. Following the Israeli government's refusal to commit to halting settlement activity in the West Bank, the US administration cancelled a meeting that was supposed to have been held between Netanyahu and Mitchell in Paris. Netanyahu is thus gambling on Barak's success where Molcho failed, since Barak heads the Labour Party, which the US views as supporting a political settlement.
Yet Israeli sources say that the Israeli proposal will mislead the US administration, for 2,000 residential units are currently under construction, which means that preparations will be made during this same period to welcome 2,000 new Jewish families to settlements in the West Bank. It is also ironic that the Israeli proposal was made public only a day after it was announced that the Maale Adumim settlement, the West Bank's largest, will annex 139 dunams of Palestinian land in the Dead Sea region to be exploited for industrial zones and tourism.
The issues implicated in Palestinian domestic dialogue, in truce negotiations with Israel, and in Israel-US relations are significantly overlapping. Such complications destroyed any likelihood of reaching a quick agreement that would end the Palestinian domestic rift.