Wednesday,18 October, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1364, (12 - 18 October 2017)
Wednesday,18 October, 2017
Issue 1364, (12 - 18 October 2017)

Ahram Weekly

New model for negotiations

Palestinian reconciliation could be the harbinger of a wider regional settlement, writes Ahmed Eleiba

Fawzi (left) and Ismail Haniyeh, head of the Hamas political bureau in Gaza last week (photo: AP)
Fawzi (left) and Ismail Haniyeh, head of the Hamas political bureau in Gaza last week (photo: AP)

Palestinian reconciliation talks in Cairo are moving towards negating the effects of the rift between Fatah and Hamas and reviving Palestinian unity. Major steps towards this end include the reinstatement of the national consensus government in Gaza, the integration of security agencies and preparations for general elections. This week, at the invitation of Egypt’s General Intelligence, which is supervising the inter-Palestinian dialogue, the first round of the follow-through talks began in Cairo. Participants discussed questions of security, reform of the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) and election mechanisms. Further Egyptian-sponsored rounds will follow.

A movement towards reviving Palestinian-Israeli negotiations appears to be gaining momentum in tandem with the Palestinian dialogue. Sources directly connected with the issue stress that Palestinian reconciliation is a prelude to an anticipated political settlement in the Arab-Israeli conflict. They point to consensus in Moscow and Washington over the reconciliation process and the collective support and sponsorship of an Arab axis that includes Cairo, Abu Dhabi and Riyadh.

Indications can be found in couched in statements made by parties involved in developing the working plan. The most recent message appeared in an official communiqué from the Egyptian presidency following a high level meeting on 8 October, the evening before the Palestinian delegations arrived in Cairo. The meeting, chaired by President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi, was attended by Prime Minister Sherif Ismail, Defence Minister Sidki Sobhi, Interior Minister Magdi Abdel-Ghaffar and General Intelligence Director Khaled Fawzi. The communiqué stated: “Egyptian actions seeking to assist our Palestinian brothers to begin a new phase of Palestinian unity pave the way for a drive towards a just peace between Palestine and Israel.”

Last week the Palestinian national consensus government convened its first meeting in Gaza. It was attended by the director of Egypt’s General Intelligence who conveyed a message from Al-Sisi. Even most important was a meeting that took place in New York on the fringes of the General Assembly between President Al-Sisi and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and attended by the chief of the Israeli security agency Shabak. According to an informed source in Cairo, the meeting addressed the security arrangements which are accompanying the Palestinian reconciliation process and focussed on coordinating positions. The source dismissed Netanyahu’s statement, made following the official announcement of the reconciliation, in which the Israeli prime minister said Hamas must first recognise Israel and lay down its weapons. The position was widely anticipated, the source said.

Signals of the movement towards restarting the Palestinian/Arab/Israeli negotiating process are evident at the regional level, starting with Saudi Arabia. Riyadh has become a third party to the Camp David accord signed between Cairo and Tel Aviv in 1979 by virtue of the transfer of Tiran and Sanafir islands to Saudi Arabian sovereignty. The islands fall within Area C under the Camp David annexes. In assuming title over them Riyadh has become a party to the security provisions in the peace accord. In addition, the UAE, the third member of the Cairo-Riyadh-Abu Dhabi axis, has taken Qatar’s place as the main funder of government institutions in Gaza.

For the first time a regional alternative is emerging to the hitherto bilateral format of the peace process. The peace treaties that Israel has concluded so far with Arab states were the product of bilateral negotiations in Camp David and Wadi Araba.

Antoine Shalhat of Madar, the Palestinian Forum for Israeli Studies, told Al-Ahram Weekly “there is clearly movement towards the negotiating process.”

“Something is simmering on a slow burner. Despite Israel’s pretence it is against the developments and that they will fail of the own accord, below the surface there is talk about Israeli conditions, more or less the same as those made by the international Quartet.”

Israeli settlement construction and expansion remains one of the most formidable obstacles to kick-starting the negotiating process. The Israeli government recently gave a green light to the construction of thousands of housing units. In Shalhat’s opinion, the key to handling this is Netanyahu. “There are signs of a slowdown in this phenomenon and growing complaints from the Israeli right that Netanyahu is not as serious about settlement expansion as he pretends to be.” 

 “The track will be different this time,” says the Palestinian researcher. “Rather than bilateral, it will be regional. The outlines of a working plan are not yet clear but most probably there will be a broad framework informed by the Arab initiative — a comprehensive settlement in exchange for comprehensive normalisation.”

According to former Palestinian minister Hassan Asfour, a member of the Palestinian negotiating team at Oslo, “We have clear features of a ‘deal of the century’, to use President Al-Sisi’s words in his first official meeting with Donald Trump in Washington.”

“But for the deal to happen there has to be Palestinian reconciliation. Now we have a clear position from Hamas on reconciliation. It’s significant, in this context, that Hamas leader Moussa Abu Marzouk said that there is no longer an American veto against inter-Palestinian reconciliation. Palestinian reconciliation is what will pave the way to the settlement of the Palestinian cause.”

Asfour agrees with Shalhat that even if Israel pays no attention to this movement a major political change could occur in Israel if Netanyahu is forced from power as the result of corruption investigations.

On questions of substance in the negotiations Asfour says “Israel has already gotten more than it expected, so why obstruct an agreement?”

“Israel has seized more than 12 per cent of the land in the West Bank. After negotiating over 1.5 per cent we moved to 6.5 per cent. Now it has taken twice that. As for Jerusalem, a much harder question, the issue is clear to Fatah and Mahmoud Abbas who acknowledges that the Wailing Wall and Plaza should go to Israel while the remainder should go to the Palestinians under a joint Arab administration. In practical terms this constitutes recognition on the part of the PA that there is a temple, and is a prelude to recognising the Jewishness of the state.”

Although Trump recently mentioned in an interview on TBN that he would be making a decision on moving the US Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem “in the not too distant future” he also indicated that he would wait to see how this nascent peace proposal pans out.

Said Okasha, Israeli affairs expert at Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies, says Washington’s strategy is to give an opportunity to a negotiating project that could yield a comprehensive regional solution. “Trump underscored this when he said, in that same interview, ‘I want to give an opportunity to that before I even think about moving the embassy to Jerusalem’.”

With regard to the security aspects of the plan Asfour mentions a possible international peacekeeping force, led by the US but including parties such as Egypt and Russia.

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