Chances for peace emerge in Mideast clashes

On Thursday in Egypt, Israeli President Shimon Peres backed the 'spirit' of a Saudi proposal that offers Arab recognition of Israel.

Both Israel and the United States soon will have new leaders at the helm. The Palestinians, too, are facing possible elections. During such transitional times for the three major players in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, few expected any concrete steps toward peace.

But a new calm has emerged in the cross-border battle between Gazan militants and the Israeli army, Palestinian rival factions Fatah and Hamas are preparing for reconciliation talks, and on Thursday in Egypt Israeli President Shimon Peres backed the "spirit" of a 2002 Arab initiative that maps out regional peace.

Many unresolved issues stand in the way of real peace, but all parties seem newly interested in avoiding a return to the daily violence and finding interim solutions ahead of upcoming anniversaries, deadlines, and changes in leadership.

The cease-fire that Israel and the Islamic militant group Hamas reached, expires Dec. 19, six months after it went into effect. Both sides would like to continue this calm.

While the Associated Press reports that at least 50 rockets landed in southern Israel since the truce, including one Tuesday in Sderot, it's a far cry from the daily rain of rockets that southern Israel coped with during the height of cross-border violence earlier this year.

"We've been returning to normal life, going back to work and school without all the problems and stress of having a warning of an incoming rocket every hour. It's become livable here again, and we hope it will continue," says Tovah Malka, the director of the mayor's office in Sderot.

But the cease-fire, even if extended, will remain tenuous as long as the Gaza Strip struggles with economic hardships.

"What is the point of extending the tahdiya if there's still no fuel, no basic materials coming in? Could you imagine Gaza without tunnels? We would have died by now," says Ismail Ammar, who runs an electronics repair shop in Gaza City, referring to the smuggling tunnels underneath the Egypt-Gaza border.

"Since the Israelis are controlling the crossing and keeping up the siege, I am losing my business."

Israel has continued to keep economic pressure on Gaza as a way to force Hamas to release Gilad Shalit, an Israeli soldier who was captured by militants more than two years ago in a cross-border raid.

When Mr. Peres was in Egypt Thursday for an official state visit – the first of its kind in several years – to discuss a proposal to revamp and relaunch the Arab peace initiative (also known as the Saudi Plan), Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak said he was committed to seeing Mr. Shalit released through a prisoner swap.

In Egypt, Peres said the Saudi plan would need to be negotiated further, but that the spirit of it was "correct." The deal offers Arab peace with Israel in exchange for the Jewish state's withdrawal from Arab lands seized in 1967.

Another motivating factor for the increase in talks is the fact that Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas's term expires Jan. 9. Hamas and Fatah are preparing to meet in Egypt on Nov. 9 to for talks with an eye toward reaching a national reconciliation agreement, one that could heal the schism that has plagued Palestinian politics since Hamas's takeover of Gaza 16 months ago.

Mkhaimar Abusada, a political scientist at Al Azhar University in Gaza, says that the looming expiration of Mr. Abbas's term has given Palestinians a target date for reaching some kind of plan to move forward. But the skeleton of an agreement is thin on exact details, leaving much to be worked out in negotiations.

"We're not expecting them to get a deal after the first round of negotiations next month, but the goal is to get one before the end of the year, or before Jan. 9, which is the expiration of Abbas's term. But the problem will be the implementation of that agreement," he says.

First there are the external differences: Fatah wants to negotiate with Israel, Hamas doesn't. Then there are the internal ones: Fatah wants to hold new elections, Hamas doesn't.

"Hamas is very adamant about having legislative elections now as part of a way to solve this crisis," Mr. Abusada says. "Hamas wants the parliament to have its four years, until January 2010."

But how to avoid the Fatah-Hamas divisiveness of the past? Egypt is proposing that the new government be a "nationally agreed upon government," but not a national unity government.

What has shifted recently in the Fatah-run PA's favor, notes Jonathan Spyer, a fellow at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzilya, is the success of the PA to boost its security profile in the West Bank. But Hamas remains in firm control of Gaza.

"The fact that the cease-fire may be extended is indicative of the quite significant entrenchment of Hamas in Gaza," Mr. Spyer says. "It shows Hamas is maintaining order on a certain level. It's a de facto acceptance by the Arab world. Part of the price of that is keeping things quiet vis-à-vis Israel, and so the cease-fire kind of serves everyone's interests at the moment.

"But I would suspect that we are not on the verge of a major reconciliation of Palestinian politics, which would result in a return of Fatah playing a major role in Gaza," he adds. "I don't think Hamas feels itself under such pressure in Gaza that it would actually cede power, and that's what [reconciliation] would require."

Safwat al-Khalout contributed reporting from Gaza City.

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