Mohamed Bassiouni tells Doaa El-Bey it is better to postpone any reconciliation agreement until an atmosphere more conducive to Palestinian dialogue can be created
Mohamed Bassiouni, the former Egyptian ambassador to Israel and head of the Shura Council Committee for External and Arab Affairs and National Security, told Al-Ahram Weekly that Egypt had exerted enormous efforts to end Palestinian divisions but that it will be some time before any returns accrue.
Egypt began preparing the groundwork for comprehensive Palestinian dialogue almost a year ago. The first meeting to be attended by all the Palestinian factions was held on 26 February. That meeting, says Bassiouni, laid a firm basis for reconciliation. After the meeting five committees were formed to resolve issues connected with security, elections, the Palestine Liberation Organisation, national reconciliation and governance. Egypt not only attends these committees but heads some of them. Cairo, contends Bassiouni, has played a pivotal role in bridging the differences between the various parties.
Intensive meetings in March led to agreement on many issues, including continuing recognition of the PLO as the only legal representative of the Palestinians. Agreement was reached on structural changes that would allow the PLO to become more representative, and a consensus emerged that legislative, presidential and Palestine National Council elections should be held simultaneously across the Palestinian territories, including Jerusalem, no later than 25 January 2010 to allow for the formation of a national unity government. The parties agreed this government would be transitional and that its term would end at the same time as the present legislative council.
The various committees, says Bassiouni, had also reached agreement on the composition of the elections committee and on the need to reform the security apparatus along professional rather than factional lines. Outstanding differences did, however, remain over the issue of detainees. Fatah wanted to release prisoners not involved in security- related cases after the reconciliation agreement was signed while at the same time disclosing the reasons why those who were not released remained in detention whereas Hamas demanded the release of all prisoners before signing. And while no one doubts that the security forces need a major overhaul, the nitty gritty of change remained contentious. Unresolved issues necessitated seven meetings between Fatah and Hamas since April, yet still they failed to reach agreement, and during July and August Cairo embarked on a whirlwind of shuttle diplomacy in an attempt to identify the points of contention.
Given the insistence of the parties that Cairo should continue its mediation, Egypt presented a comprehensive vision for reconciliation to all the Palestinian factions and parties that took part in the Palestinian dialogue on 9 September. After Egypt received a positive response to its core proposals Cairo set 25 October as the date for signing the reconciliation agreement.
Following the Palestinian Authority's agreement to postpone a vote on the Goldstone Report Hamas backed away from signing the reconciliation agreement, accusing Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas of deferring a vote that could, theoretically at least, have led to Israeli officials being tried for war crimes. When Cairo baulked at any procrastination in signing the reconciliation agreement Hamas promised it would inform Egypt of whether or not it would attend the signing.
Hamas's reluctance has created a negative atmosphere that makes the setting of any date for signing difficult. As a result, says Bassiouni, of Hamas-Fatah differences over how to deal with the Goldstone Report, Cairo has been forced to postpone the signing to allow the repercussions of the controversy over the report to run their course.