Israel ditches the go-between

CAIRO (IPS) - Senior Egyptian officials have indicated that the new demands raised by Israel for ceasefire could affect the peace negotiations between Israel and Hamas being brokered by Egypt.

Israel abruptly announced its refusal Wednesday last week to sign on to an Egypt-proposed ceasefire deal with Palestinian resistance factions before the release of captured Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit. The proposed agreement — which Egyptian officials had said was imminent — calls for the phased reopening of the Gaza Strip’s borders.

“I don’t think we need to open the [border] crossings until the issue of Gilad Shalit is resolved,” Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert was quoted as saying.

US-funded Arabic-language television news channel Al-Hurra quoted a high-level Egyptian official as saying Friday that the abrupt change of position would have “a severe effect on Israel’s credibility” as a negotiating partner.

On Thursday (19 February), an Egyptian “commercial delegation” visiting Jerusalem — which reportedly included Egyptian foreign ministry officials — was hastily called back to Cairo. According to reports in the Israeli daily Haaretz, Egypt’s ambassador to Israel stated that the delegation had been recalled for “professional consultations.”

“Withdrawing the delegation was a way of sending a message of protest to the Israelis and expressing Egypt’s annoyance over Israel’s sudden change of position vis-a-vis the ceasefire,” Abdelaziz Shadi, coordinator of Cairo University’s Israeli studies program told IPS.

“Israeli officials are dealing with the issue in the context of domestic political considerations, without regard for the effects of their decision on ongoing regional and international efforts to stabilize the situation in Gaza,” he said.

In the month since Israel’s three-week military campaign against the Gaza Strip, Cairo has hosted several rounds of indirect talks between Israeli officials and representatives of Palestinian resistance factions, chief among them Hamas. Aimed at reaching a long-term ceasefire agreement, the negotiations have been conducted through Egyptian general intelligence chief Omar Suleiman.

Until recently, talks have revolved around the respective sides’ chief demands — namely, a cessation of rocket-fire by Gaza-based Palestinian resistance factions in exchange for the reopening of the Gaza Strip’s borders by Israel. Ever since Hamas seized control of the strip in 2007 (after winning elections in 2006), Israel and Egypt have both kept their borders with the embattled coastal enclave tightly sealed for the most part.

Last year, Egypt successfully brokered a six-month truce between Israel and resistance factions calling for the halt of all Israeli military operations in the Gaza Strip in return for the cessation of rocket salvoes launched at Israel from within the strip. It also called for the gradual reopening of Gaza’s borders by Israel, although this was never fully carried out.

Despite occasional violations by both sides, that agreement held until the launch of Israel’s recent campaign against Gaza, which ended on 17 January.

On 9 February, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak announced that a breakthrough in the current round of talks in Cairo was imminent. “A ceasefire agreement could be reached in the coming week,” Mubarak declared on an official state visit to Paris.

On 14 February, an unnamed Egyptian official close to the talks was quoted by independent daily Al-Masri Al-Youm as saying that an agreement was likely be announced “within 48 hours.” The official went on to say that the deal, which would extend for a period of 18 months, would offer a cessation of Palestinian rocket fire from the Gaza Strip in return for the phased reopening of Gaza’s six border crossings with Israel.

As for the Rafah crossing, the sole transit point along Egypt’s 14-kilometer border with the strip, the official said that “security arrangements for its reopening” would be made next month following a 2 March conference in Cairo devoted to Gaza reconstruction.

On the same day, however, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert abruptly declared that Israel would not sign the proposed agreement before the release of captured Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit. Shalit, a corporal in the Israeli army, was captured by Palestinian resistance factions in 2006.

On Monday (16 February), Lebanon-based Hamas leader Osama Hamdan categorically rejected Israel’s insistence on tying the truce agreement to Shalit’s release, calling them “entirely unrelated issues.”

“The Cairo talks have not included any mention of a prisoner swap,” Hamdan was quoted as saying. “The Israelis are merely trying to trip up the proposed ceasefire agreement.”

Hamas has previously said that it was willing to consider Shalit’s release, but only within the context of a separate prisoner-exchange deal — not as part of a general ceasefire agreement.

On Tuesday (17 February), President Mubarak concurred that the Shalit issue “constitutes a separate issue that cannot be tied to the ongoing ceasefire talks.”

Nevertheless, on Wednesday (18 February), Israel’s security cabinet formally decided against opening the country’s borders with the Hamas-run Gaza Strip before the release of the captured soldier. Cabinet minister Meir Sheetrit was quoted as saying that it would be “inconceivable” for Israel to accept a ceasefire proposal in the absence of Shalit’s release.

Egyptian officials reacted to the news angrily, calling the development “an enormous setback” to the negotiations. On the same day, they announced that separate reconciliation talks between Palestinian factions Fatah and Hamas — scheduled to begin in Cairo on Sunday (22 February) — would have to be delayed in light of the new circumstances.

Israeli negotiators are expected to return to Cairo for further indirect talks with Hamas. Shadi, however, sees little hope for short-term progress given the current uncertain state of Israeli electoral politics.

“Olmert’s intransigence is simply a way of stalling for time until a new Israeli government is formed,” Shadi told IPS. “As it now stands, Olmert lacks a mandate — from either the nation or his party — to sign any major agreements.”

The embattled Israeli prime minister, facing numerous corruption charges, is expected to step down once a new government is formed in the wake of Israel’s recent inconclusive parliamentary elections.

“The talks currently under way in Cairo, therefore, cannot be expected to yield any results in the short term,” said Shadi. “Until they form a government, Olmert — unconcerned with re-election — will waste as much time as he can by making new and unreasonable demands.”

But Shadi warned against attaching too much weight to Egypt’s reported annoyance with Israel.

“Sure, Egypt is frustrated about Israeli obstinacy, but not to the extent that Turkey is,” he said, in a reference to the Turkish prime minister’s recent snubbing of Israeli President Shimon Peres at the economic summit in Davos, Switzerland, over the Gaza campaign.

“Turkey might be able to abandon its role as Arab-Israeli mediator in protest,” Shadi explained. “But Egypt will never give up its role in the peace process, which is closely correlated to the country’s national security.”

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