Sunday, 11 January 2009

Analysis: Indirect talks for Gaza cease-fire

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Matthew Kalman, Chronicle Foreign Service

Jerusalem -- Israeli, Palestinian and Egyptian representatives are meeting in Cairo this weekend to explore an Egyptian-French cease-fire proposal to end Israel's invasion of Gaza.

As the Palestinian death toll spiraled beyond 800 and Israeli leaflets dropped on Gaza warned of an escalation in attacks that have now entered a third week, the two sides seemed far apart on ending the violence. Both sides continued to ignore a U.N. Security Council resolution calling for an immediate cease-fire.

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said Operation Cast Lead "will stop when the conditions that are essential for Israel's security are met. First and foremost, all terrorist operations against us must stop. The strengthening of the terrorist organizations via the smuggling of war materiel from Egypt into Gaza must also stop."

In the Syrian city of Damascus, Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal said Israel should "pull out first, let the aggression stop first, let the crossings open and then people can look into the issue of calm."

As negotiators attempt to bridge the wide gulf, the two sides are hampered by their refusal to talk to each other directly. Hamas does not recognize the existence of Israel, usually referring to it as "the Zionist entity," and has called for the destruction of the Jewish state. Israel refuses to recognize or address the group directly. Instead of meeting face to face to hammer out their differences, past negotiations have been conducted through Egyptian intermediaries.

Hamas official Ayman Taha was expected to sit in a downtown Cairo hotel this weekend while Israeli official Amos Gilad sat in the office of Egyptian intelligence chief Omar Suleiman, according to an Israeli negotiator with knowledge of previous Israel-Hamas talks. Egyptian officials presented proposals to each side, then shuttled between the two locations with their answers. "There is no negotiating table, no meeting space. There are no direct negotiations whatsoever," said Moty Cristal of NEST Consulting, an Israeli expert in crisis management.

It may be a cumbersome way of stopping the fighting, but there seems to be little choice.

Israel's current negotiating partner, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, is no longer recognized by Hamas since his term formally ended Friday. Abbas, who participated in the Cairo talks Saturday, has been without much influence over Gaza since his Fatah forces were ousted from the territory by Hamas in 2007.

"Those with whom Israel talk cannot deliver, and those who can deliver, Israel doesn't want to talk with," said Cristal.

Hamas-Israeli relations have not always been so distant. In fact, Israel played a key role in the formation of Hamas by encouraging Sheikh Ahmed Yassin - the group's co-founder - to establish Hamas as a Palestinian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood in Gaza in the late 1980s as a rival to Yasser Arafat's Palestinian Liberation Organization.

"It was exactly the same mistake that the U.S. made when they encouraged the development of the Taliban to counter the Soviets in Afghanistan," said Reuven Berko, a former adviser on Arab affairs to the Israeli military in Gaza."

While Israel has made its cease-fire conditions clear - no more attacks, no more arms smuggling - Hamas' demands seem shortsighted at best. They seek the opening of all border crossings, the continuation of arms shipments and the right to continue their resistance by launching rocket attacks at Israel. For some, the Hamas refusal to compromise even at the cost of mass death and destruction for their people has transformed them into heroes; for others, it has made them objects of contempt.

"Regardless of the outcome of Israel's barbaric Operation Cast Lead, one thing is certain: It is high time for Hamas to step down as keeper of Gaza," wrote commentator Sultan Al-Qassemi in the Beirut Daily Star. "By any standards, Hamas has failed. It has failed in peace, it has failed in governance, and it is failing in war."

Central to the success of the cease-fire talks is Egypt. While deploring the Israeli campaign, the regime of President Hosni Mubarak has said that Hamas must share the burden for the Gaza catastrophe. Israel hopes Egyptian pressure will modify Hamas' hard-line stance.

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