Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu met in Cairo Tuesday with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in talks aimed at bringing Egyptian pressure on the Palestinians ahead of a flurry of diplomatic activity expected next week, including a visit from US Middle East envoy George Mitchell.
The Israelis appear to be seeking more movement toward peace talks on the part of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, given what Mr. Netanyahu says are unprecedented moves toward peace by halting settlement construction in the West Bank. The 10-month freeze does not include East Jerusalem, where Israeli officials said yesterday they would build another 700 housing units, raising ire among Palestinians and summoning criticism from the Obama administration.
Mr. Mitchell, on his visit, is expected to present a new draft for resuming peace talks. Netanyahu was quoted in Tuesday's Yedioth Ahronoth as saying that his government had taken "courageous steps for the sake of peace that no other government has taken, but the Palestinians have imposed difficulties and preconditions and have climbed a high tree." He added, according to the interview: "The time for excuses is over, and the time for action has arrived.”
The comments seem to reflect an outlook that Netanyahu is trying to portray to the world: that he has done everything in his power so far to bring about a new era in peace talks, and that it's time for the Palestinian leadership to come forward with bold moves as well.
"Everyone wants to make sure it looks like the ball is in the other guy's court," says Mark Heller, an analyst on the Middle East conflict at the Institute for National Security Studies at Tel Aviv University. In that way, he says, Netanyahu will be able to tell Barack Obama, who has made the peace process a foreign policy priority, that he's made as many overtures as he can without endangering the stability of his own government.
Gilad Shalit's status discussed
The talks, which Netanyahu's office characterized as held in a "friendly atmosphere" and "thorough," also focused on a long-anticipated prisoner exchange deal between Israel and Hamas. Israel is expected to exchange between 900 and 1,000 Palestinian prisoners for its captive soldier, Sgt. Gilad Shalit, held in Gaza since mid-2006. Though the talks have been taking place through a German mediator, Egypt has also played a role and is expected to be the exchange point for Mr. Shalit, if and when he is released.
"Israelis at this point don't have a lot of belief in the Egyptians doing something substantial on a diplomatic front, but they are looking to them to increase their control of the border," Heller adds.
Moves to do so, however, have raised anger in Cairo, not only with Egyptians but with international protesters marking the anniversary of the Gaza war, which started this week a year ago.
Bad time for Netanyahu visit?
In Cairo, local press focused on reports of a new Egyptian security wall on the border and autonomous cells of international left-wing activists staging disruptive protests across the capital. Given that, some in Cairo say Netanyahu’s visit is coming at a bad time.
There is concern that Egypt has little to gain from the talks and could wake up on Wednesday feeling – and looking – like Israel’s accomplice.
“I am afraid that my country will find itself in the same position that it was this time last year during the Israeli invasion of Gaza,” says Diaa Rashwan, a political analyst at the government-funded Al Ahram Center for Strategic and International Studies. “The Egyptian government will look like a partner in Israeli action against Gaza and Palestinians in general, and that also looks like action against the Egyptian people themselves.”
For the past week, Egypt’s Gaza woes have been a hotter topic than usual in parliament and the press.
Its leading independent newspaper has published daily reports on the construction of a new underground steel wall along the border with the Gaza town of Rafah, which is meant to sever smugglers’ tunnels used to supply the embargoed Hamas-controlled enclave.
Then there are the activists. Egypt has blocked as many as 2,000 international activists from travelling to its border with Gaza, leaving 500 stranded in the Jordanian port of Aqaba and 1,500 in Cairo.
Unable to deliver their humanitarian supplies, the activists, part of the Gaza Freedom March, have decided to protest at Western embassies and UN buildings across the city, sparking havoc in some neighborhoods with sit-ins and an overwhelming response from Egypt’s feared state security service.
On Sunday, between 250 and 300 French nationals staged a sit in outside the French Embassy in the Cairo district of Giza, completely obstructing a major eight-lane thoroughfare and block traffic for three hours.
Cairo is unaccustomed to this kind of direct action. In response, state security corralled the demonstrators onto the sidewalk in front of the embassy and held them there with several hundred baton-wielding riot police for two days.
On Tuesday morning, weary-looking French protesters wrapped in black-and-white checkered Palestinian scarves and bright green t-shirts that said “Viva Palestina!” – including a number of elderly women – were being slowly released from their makeshift pen in twos and threes.
Some seemed intent on regrouping elsewhere in the city for another protest, while others looked badly shaken and just wanted to leave.
“The police said we have to get out of here now because otherwise they are going to assault us,” said one young girl, who would not give her name. “They say we don’t have a right to be here.”
Loubna Amar, another protester leaving the scene of the sit-in, was angry at Egypt for blocking their attempt to travel to Gaza, despite having previously approved their plan to travel to the Rafah crossing.
Gesturing at the bedraggled group of protesters, and the rows of riot police surrounding them, she joked, “we started to call this the Giza Strip.”