Pressure mounts on Egypt to deliver results

23 March 2009

WASHINGTON (IPS) - Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak weathered the recent war in neighboring Gaza much more successfully than many observers had expected, and after the war ended on 18 January he emerged as the sole mediator in negotiations over stabilizing the ceasefire and other key related issues.

But now, more than two months later, Egypt’s active mediation efforts have still not delivered any of these agreements, whether on the question of the strengthened Gaza ceasefire, a big Hamas-Israel prisoner exchange, or intra-Palestinian reconciliation. With these agreements still unsecured and a more right-wing government taking over in Israel in the coming days, Gaza’s 1.5 million people remain mired in an angry misery that could yet erupt again.

The stakes are high for Mubarak, who has been a key US ally in the region since he came to power 28 years ago. An important Arab summit will be held in Qatar’s capital, Doha, 29-30 March, at which his performance on these mediations will be one key topic discussed. Meanwhile, inside Egypt, socioeconomic unrest is rising steadily and Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, a close ally of Hamas, still forms the main base of opposition to Mubarak’s rule.

An engaged mediator has been needed to stabilize the Israel-Hamas ceasefire because the two antagonists still refuse to deal with each other directly. When the current fragile ceasefire went into operation in January it happened as the result of two parallel but completely un-negotiated decisions.

Egypt had been the mediator in the largely successful six-month-long ceasefire the parties reached in June 2008, and after the January war it emerged again as the sole mediating channel. One of Cairo’s main interests is to prevent the spillover of the Gaza issue into domestic politics — whether that would happen through renewed warfare between Israel and Gaza or through any repeat of the mass bust-out of Gazans into Egypt that happened in January 2008.

That bust-out of people across Gaza’s seven-mile border with Egypt was motivated mainly by the despair of a civilian population that, ever since Hamas won the Palestinian parliamentary elections in January 2006, has been subjected to an economic siege, instigated by Israel but also enforced by Egypt.

The hundreds of thousands of Gazans who traveled to Egypt during the bust-out frantically bought basic consumer goods from traders in nearby Egyptian towns. After 16 days, Egypt and Hamas reached an agreement whereby the Gazans returned home and the border was strengthened again.

Hamas’s leaders have always insisted that any ceasefire with Israel must be accompanied by the lifting of the siege. They thought they had secured such a promise with the June 2008 ceasefire, but Israel never performed. This time around Hamas is still insisting, and Israel is still balking. But the situation of Gaza’s people is even more dire, since during the latest war Israel destroyed thousands of homes and many public buildings, including the parliament.

Disregarding strong protests from humanitarian organizations and the much weaker protests of western governments, Israel’s outgoing Prime Minister, Ehud Olmert, has not allowed any construction materials at all into Gaza since the war. He has allowed in only items on a short list of designated “bare necessity” foodstuffs, and some hygiene and medical supplies.

The lifting of the siege is linked to intra-Palestinian reconciliation because Israel says it cannot allow any further opening of the freight crossings into Gaza — all of which it totally controls — unless members of the Palestinian Authority (PA) loyal to the US-backed Fatah head Mahmoud Abbas are present on the other side to receive the goods. Fatah’s security forces were ousted from Gaza by Hamas in 2007.

Negotiators from these two big Palestinian movements have been meeting in Cairo since late February with the aim of forming a unity government for the PA. Israel and the US have said that any new PA government must recognize Israel, renounce violence, and commit to all the agreements concluded by the PA and its parent body, the PLO. The Hamas leaders reportedly said they were ready to “respect” the PA’s previous commitments but not explicitly to “commit to” them.

In a quick visit to Washington Wednesday, Egypt’s powerful security boss Omar Suleiman, who has been running the Gaza-related negotiations for Mubarak, tried to win the Obama administration’s agreement to this formula. He apparently failed, and on Thursday Egypt suspended the intra-Palestinian talks without reaching any agreement on a new government.

Suleiman’s attempt to mediate an Israel-Hamas prisoner exchange have been equally unsuccessful. This is the deal whereby Israeli corporal Gilad Shalit, who has been held as a prisoner-of-war in Gaza since June 2006 and is currently under Hamas’s control, would be exchanged for some hundreds of Palestinian prisoners and detainees.

Israel currently holds between 11,000 and 12,000 Palestinian political prisoners. Like all colonial powers, and like the US in Iraq, it has made broad and prolonged use of mass detentions in its campaign to break the local independence movement.

Some of the Palestinian prisoners, including famed Fatah next-generation leader Marwan Barghouthi, were given the semblance of trials in either military or civilian courts in Israel in which their due-process rights were nowhere near fully respected. Others have simply been held under six-month orders for “administrative” detention, with those six-month detentions frequently being repeated.

Prime Minister Olmert seemed to have a fairly strong motivation to win the release of Shalit and earlier this week it seemed that a prisoner exchange deal was close. But those negotiations also broke down. On Thursday, far from releasing any Palestinian prisoners, Israel’s military dove deep into West Bank towns supposedly controlled by Abbas’s PA and captured an additional 10 Hamas political figures, including four elected parliamentarians.

This brought back to more than 40 the number of members of the PA’s 132-person parliament held by Israel. All those parliamentarians were elected in free and fair elections in 2006. The PA’s parliament has been unable since June 2006 to muster a quorum to conduct its business. Israel’s latest act of political hostage-taking aroused little western protest.

In interviews with IPS in Ramallah and Hebron, three Hamas parliamentarians released in an earlier phase of Israel’s “rotating door” detentions campaign spoke of the hardships their detention had caused — but also of the continued high morale of the Palestinian prisoners. They noted that national unity seemed much stronger among Palestinians inside Israeli prisons than among those in the larger “outdoor prisons” that they said the PA-controlled enclaves in the West Bank had become.

For Egypt’s Mubarak, the failure of his government’s multiple linked mediation efforts comes at a bad time. In the Arab world, his main rival, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, has quietly been gaining clout. In Washington, President Barack Obama has not helped Mubarak meet any of his negotiation-related challenges, and now seems worryingly disinterested in the whole Palestine question. And in Israel, the presumptive next foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman has been openly dismissive of Egypt’s concerns in the past, at one point stating bluntly that “Egypt can go to hell.”

All these developments must make Mubarak very worried. Success in any one of the Palestinian-related negotiations could have strengthened his political standing at home and abroad. But until now, he has had no successes in any of them.

Helena Cobban is a veteran Middle East analyst and author. She blogs at www.JustWorldNews.org.

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