Light at the end of the year
Egyptian mediation between Palestinians and Israelis on the one hand and Palestinians and Palestinians on the other is making little progress, but hope lies ahead, Dina Ezzat
This morning, Thursday 17 September, President Hosni Mubarak is expected to meet George Mitchell, the US Middle East envoy for the Middle East. During their talks at the Heliopolis presidential headquarters, Mitchell is expected to brief Mubarak on the outcome of his talks with Palestinians and Israelis to set the ground for the re-launching of Palestinian-Israeli peace talks that are expected to be called for during US President Barack Obama's address before the UN on 24 September.
Mitchell, sources say, is making decent progress in trying to persuade the Israelis to agree to a comprehensive -- rather than full -- halt of the construction of illegal settlements in occupied Palestinian territories.
Mubarak is expected to share with his US guest the outcome of Egyptian mediation between Hamas, in control of Gaza since the summer of 2007, and Fatah, isolated in Ramallah for the past two years. Egyptian mediation to promote Palestinian reconciliation is "developing", as one source close to the negotiations for reconciliation, said. Mubarak will also inform Mitchell about the outcome of Egyptian-Palestinian consultations on the chances of a prompt resumption of peace talks.
One diplomatic source told Al-Ahram Weekly that Egypt is still expecting Mitchell to deliver a declared Israeli commitment to check the Israeli construction of illegal settlements in the West Bank, even on a gradual basis. The same source added that Egypt was of the view that Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, the leader of Fatah, cannot accept much longer the current standstill. "We are of the view that Abbas should agree to the meeting that Obama wishes to arrange for him and [Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin] Netanyahu on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly," the Egyptian diplomat said. He added that during his talks with Netanyahu in Cairo on Sunday, President Mubarak advised the Israeli prime minister to "make use of the historic opportunity that President Obama is offering and move ahead towards making peace so that the region can get over the file of conflict and start a new phase of cooperation."
And according to the same source, the Mubarak-Netanyahu talks this week offered a sense of openness towards the serious possibility of resuming talks between Palestinians and Israelis before the end of this year. "I think we are talking about some elementary meetings -- pre-negotiation talks -- that Egypt might host and then a peace conference to re-launch the peace process in Washington in November, to be followed by a conference under the auspices of the Union for the Mediterranean, to launch considerable Arab-Israeli cooperation moves before Christmas this year," the source added.
A communiqué issued by the office of official presidential spokesman Suleiman Awwad said that Mubarak pressed Netanyahu into refraining from all moves, especially the aggressive settlement scheme, that could block the way to the resumption of peace talks.
Egypt is telling Palestinians -- the Abbas-chaired Palestinian Authority and Hamas -- that they need to cope with the current international diplomatic momentum by forging a reconciliation pact. "We are increasingly hearing calls and suggestions to start Palestinian-Israeli talks in order for an agreement to be reached on the West Bank, excluding Gaza. This is very serious and it would harm the already endangered Palestinian interests," said an Egyptian diplomat in Washington who asked that his name be withheld. He added that Egypt was increasingly calling on all parties concerned to abandon the scheme, as it would aggravate already shaky Palestinian relations and consequently endanger any possible peace deal that could be concluded.
An Arab foreign ministers meeting scheduled to convene in New York on Tuesday 22 September would offer an opportunity for a collective Arab stance to be adopted ahead of the Obama speech.
Meanwhile, Egypt is "pressuring" Hamas and Fatah to move ahead in making "positive" responses to a proposed reconciliation deal that Egyptian negotiators say "accommodates the points of view of each side."
"We are hoping to get them to meet and to agree on a process of gradual reconciliation. The deal that should be signed in Cairo on the third week of October should be comprehensive but its application should be gradual and would take up to a year or a little less and would be observed by Egypt," the negotiator said.
Moreover, Egypt, in cooperation with Germany, is trying to fast- track the completion of a prisoner swap deal that would allow for the release of Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit -- Israel hopes by later this month -- in return for a few hundred Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails. "We believe that this would help everyone. It would please the Netanyahu government and make it willing to move positively towards imposing a moratorium on settlement construction; it would please Hamas whose prisoners would be released, and it would also please Abbas whose position would be strengthened," the Egyptian diplomat stressed. He, however, refrained from speculating on a potential date for the deal to be struck. "Things are moving in the right direction but there are no guarantees that they will keep moving in this direction." This, he said, applies to the prisoner swap deal as much as to Palestinian reconciliation and the potential resumption of Palestinian-Israeli peace talks. "It should all be happening before this year comes to an end but it could all fall apart if Israel keeps on exercising its intransigence without any firm US pressure," he added.