Gaza -- only appeals
Managing the humanitarian crisis in Gaza and the failure of peace negotiations topped the agenda in Cairo this week. Dina Ezzat
assesses prospects for movement on either track
"This is what I would call nonsense," was the reaction of Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Abul- Gheit to leaks carried by the Israeli daily Yedioth Ahronoth at the weekend on a draft plan allegedly of the Israeli foreign minister to declare the Gaza Strip "an entirely independent entity" allowing Israel to drop any and all legal responsibilities towards the occupied, densely populated and extremely impoverished Strip on the Eastern border of Egypt.
Abul-Gheit spoke Sunday following talks between President Hosni Mubarak and Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu in Cairo. According to the top Egyptian diplomat, the almost three- hour meeting, that included lunch, included no discussion of the leaked Gaza plan.
The leaks suggest that Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman wants to permanently seal all borders linking Israel to Gaza and get all goods necessary for Gaza to enter in or out of the Strip through a European monitored sea access route originating in Cyprus or Greece. The alleged Lieberman plan further suggests the Europeans support the construction of electric, water and sewage facilities in Gaza to make it entirely independent of Israel.
The Israeli daily indicated no sign of support from Netanyahu for the Lieberman scheme. It also showed no sign that Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak supported it either.
As far as Cairo is concerned, any talk about cutting off the West Bank from the Gaza Strip is a non- starter. According to Egyptian diplomats, such schemes mean two things: the first is that the Hamas authority in Gaza would be recognised as the legitimate authority; second, that Israel, the occupying power, would be relived of binding obligations under international law towards the Gaza Strip. Neither is accepted in Cairo.
"We made it very clear to the Europeans that Lieberman is trying to lobby, and to the US and the UN, that we are not even concerned with this proposal," said an Egyptian diplomat. According to a European diplomat, Lieberman did bring the scheme to the attention of European officials but has received hardly any support. Some have rejected the plan because they think it cannot work, or that it would strengthen Hamas. Others rejected it on the basis of Egyptian disinterest.
"It has become very difficult to find a way out for Gaza, simply because the concerned parties cannot agree amongst themselves on a unified approach," said the European diplomat. Speaking in Cairo, he added that while both Egypt and Israel, for example, seem to agree that Hamas should not be given any political recognition, they do not seem to agree on the way to handle the humanitarian crisis in Gaza. "And nobody can do anything when these two parties" which are the immediate and only neighbours of Gaza "cannot agree."
This week, Catherine Ashton, the EU foreign minister, was in Gaza and Israel in an attempt to find solutions for the deprived Strip. According to European sources, Ashton pressured the Israeli government to allow more goods to flow into Gaza, and insisted that these goods should go through the Israeli controlled Carnie Crossing, to the east of Gaza.
The appeals of Ashton for a "further ease" of the blockade Israel has imposed on Gaza for three years -- since the Hamas take over of the Strip -- received hardly any serious response, according to sources that spoke to Al-Ahram Weekly. The top European diplomat insisted that Israeli security concerns should not conflict with the flow of goods into Gaza.
"Ashton is currently discussing with [EU] foreign ministers the outcome of her talks in Gaza and Israel and a decision will be made ... but nothing big should be expected at this point," said the European source.
Meanwhile, a letter addressed to Ashton signed by an array of European NGOs ahead of her visit on Saturday and Sunday to the region demanded that the top European diplomat work to secure "ending the ban on exports from Gaza; allowing movement of people into and from Gaza; ensuring sufficient capacity and efficiency of the crossings; allowing the entry of construction materials for the private sector; and ensuring access to Gaza's agriculture land and fishing grounds."
Sources familiar with the talks Ashton held with Israeli officials found little reason to believe that even half of this list of demands would be met. "There might be a further ease somehow; maybe more goods would be allowed and maybe the European Union would be allowed to build a few schools [in the Strip]," predicted one European diplomat. "But not much more," he added.
For its part, Egypt appears unenthusiastic about maximising its currently limited operation at the Rafah Crossing bordering Gaza. "We are not going to take the burden on behalf of Israel, and if the Palestinians want to see the end of the blockade on Gaza then they need to work out a way to reinstate the Palestinian Authority back there. This the bottom line," stated a senior Egyptian official.
No talk about direct talks
It is becoming almost inevitable: the resumption of direct talks between Israel and the Palestinian Authority (PA) is being almost forced by Washington on the Palestinians and Arabs.
This week in Cairo a round of meetings that included Egyptian, Arab, Palestinian, Israeli and American officials revealed the strength of US pressure that current indirect talks between the PA and Israel should be replaced forthwith with direct talks, irrespective of the failure of indirect talks to make progress on crucial issues and despite continued Israeli construction of illegal settlements in East Jerusalem and elsewhere in the occupied Palestinian territories.
Following talks in Cairo on Sunday that brought together President Hosni Mubarak with George Mitchell, the US presidential Middle East envoy, Mahmoud Abbas, Palestinian president and Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Abul-Gheit announced the wish expressed by both the US and Israel to move to direct talks.
According to Abul-Gheit, this wish was also expressed in a letter sent by US President Barack Obama and a call made by US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
Abul-Gheit declined to qualify these calls as "pressure put on Egypt to convince the Palestinian Authority". However, a Palestinian source that spoke to the Weekly on condition of anonymity did say that Egypt and other Arab capitals are suggesting to Abbas that he should not turn his back on the US administration.
The argument tabled by Cairo and the rest of the so-called "moderate" Arab camp is that Obama is not in a position "for now" to pressure Israel, due to preparations for midterm congressional elections. This, the argument goes further, will change once the elections are over, and as such it is better now to win the favour of Obama.
Abbas, according to Palestinian and Egyptian sources, is feeling "stuck". On the one hand, he has the US president telling him that he will not take no for an answer on direct talks, and some leading Arab capitals showing minimal resistance to this pressure. On the other hand, Abbas is faced with an angry Palestinian public that believes there is nothing for the Palestinians to gain from direct or indirect talks, while some Arab capitals oppose such talks categorically.
"I did not feel that President Abbas is going to change his position [that conditions the move to direct talks on real progress in indirect talks]," said Arab League Secretary General Amr Moussa Sunday. Progressing to direct talks means, in this respect, reaching some level of consensus on key final status issues, including the borders of a would-be Palestinian state and the fate of East Jerusalem. Moussa spoke following talks both with Mitchell and Abbas.
The Arab League chief, who has been expressing much optimism about the fate of the entire US-run mediation effort between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, called for "written guarantees" from the US on the fate of final status issues as a pre- condition to moving to final status talks. Otherwise, Moussa said, the Arabs would be simply taken for a ride by the Israeli government that negotiates with no serious intention to conclude a settlement.
Abul-Gheit said Egypt needed to see Israel investing in confidence building measures to allow for Cairo to encourage the Palestinians to enter final status talks. The Egyptian foreign minister said that despite the failure of indirect talks to achieve progress so far, "We are still hopeful that we can bridge the gap between Israeli needs for security and Palestinian demands for the borders of 1967 [as the tentative borders of their future state]."
"I would hope that by September we would have [made] enough progress to move towards direct talks," said the top Egyptian diplomat.
September is the deadline of the four-month period that Arab countries agreed to give indirect talks in order to accommodate the wishes of Washington. According to an Arab League resolution, should no progress be made by the end of these four months, Arab countries would solicit the direct intervention of the UN Security Council.
A limited Arab foreign ministers meeting is slated to examine the situation by the end of this month. Abbas is expected to attend the meeting. By mid-September, Arab foreign ministers would again meet in Cairo to further examine the situation. The final Arab decision is likely to be announced during the third week of September when Arab foreign ministers meet in New York on the fringes of the UN General Assembly.