Recent Egyptian efforts, which have intensified during the past few weeks, continue a long-standing Egyptian commitment to the peace process in the Middle East. However, this time they also serve a specific purpose related to the deteriorating Israeli-Palestinian situation, which has been in urgent need of international attention. At a time when the United States, the country leading the international community in sponsoring this peace process, is busy with its own election and involved directly in another bloody conflict in the region, the Egyptian role becomes a necessity.
The latest meeting of the Quartet took place in May immediately after the disastrous summit between US President George W. Bush and Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. (That summit included Bush's infamous assurances to Sharon, which were judged by many members of the international community, including most European countries, to contradict international law.) The Quartet meeting produced an action plan which included--among other things--the need for an Egyptian role in mediation between Israel and Palestine.
The Egyptian efforts simply stem from the different components and obligations that make up the first phase of the roadmap, in addition to other components taken from the Sharon plan of unilateral disengagement from the Gaza Strip. The Egyptians have divided these obligations into two sets: one for the Palestinians and another for the Israelis.
From the Palestinians, the Egyptians are requiring an end to all kinds of violence against Israelis and the rehabilitation, empowerment, and consolidation of the security forces. The goals of security force reform are to fulfill the commitment to preventing Palestinian violence against Israelis and to maintain law and order for Palestinians. The Egyptians also require that the Palestinians continue realizing reforms promised earlier, in addition of course to being committed to resuming the peace process and implementing the roadmap.
From the Israeli side, the Egyptians demand that in addition to ending assassinations and other forms of violence, settlement expansion must stop. On the Gaza plan, the Egyptians are clear that they expect full withdrawal, including from borders and crossing points, and desire an international presence instead, in addition to clear and meaningful roadmap implementation steps in the West Bank.
The first to sound an alarm was Osama el Baz, the political advisor of President Mubarak, who made the point that the plan approved by the Israeli cabinet contradicts to a large extent the Egyptian plan. This leaves clear doubts as to whether Israel has the intention of helping Egypt succeed in these efforts or not.
The latest negative sign on these questions came in the unnecessary, unprovoked, and ill-timed Israeli assassination of eight Palestinian activists in Nablus. The Egyptians had just begun efforts toward reaching an understanding with Israel and the Palestinian Authority on arrangements to resolve the problem of some of these groups in a way that is compatible with the Egyptian peace efforts.
The Egyptian initiative's chances of success will depend to a large extent on whether or not the Americans back it and the Israelis give it a chance. The Palestinian leadership is positive toward these efforts, but as in the past, its ability to fulfill its share of the roadmap's obligations will depend on whether or not there is reciprocity. Each side must discharge its obligations, because an act like the Nablus assassinations will definitely jeopardize the ability of the Palestinian side to succeed in its efforts.
Ghassan Khatib is coeditor of bitterlemons.org and bitterlemons-international.org. He is minister of labor in the Palestinian Authority cabinet and has served for many years as a political analyst and media contact.
The Egyptian initiative to facilitate Israel's withdrawal from the Gaza Strip is not going to work. That is the only conclusion one can draw after studying the demands put forward by Egyptian Minister of Intelligence Omar Suleiman, and juxtaposing them with the known political and security priorities of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.
Egypt will not be the first international actor to cut short a political intervention initiative in the current conflict, having discovered that it cannot work with either Sharon or Arafat since neither leader has a viable strategy for peace or even for an end to the violence.
Beginning with Arafat, the Egyptian plan calls for the Palestinian leader to relinquish effective authority over his dozen or so disparate security organizations, which will then be consolidated, reorganized, and placed under a more responsible Palestinian authority. Every previous security plan has floundered over this issue, and so will this one: Arafat's ongoing control over his forces is his way of staying in power and influencing the intensity of Palestinian terrorism; as long as he's healthy and functioning, he is not likely to concede this authority.
The Egyptian plan also calls for all Palestinian militant organizations to agree to a ceasefire. The more extreme--Hamas, Islamic Jihad and Fatah's al-Aqsa Brigades-- have already rejected that call. Arafat added insult to Egyptian injury by calling with great pomp for a ceasefire--during the two weeks of the coming Olympics in August! Arafat, then, is already proving a reluctant partner for the Egyptians.
Turning to Sharon, some of his reservations concerning the Egyptian demands are legitimate, and indeed point to excessive Egyptian ambition. But other objections merely reflect Sharon's real design for the Palestinian territories.
Egypt wants Sharon to agree that the process it is initiating will lead to the introduction of an international force in Gaza. Sharon is not interested. Indeed, many Israelis fear that the "internationalization" of the process is Arafat's way of leveling the security playing field and neutralizing Israel's capacity to defend itself against terrorism.
The international force envisaged by Egypt is supposed to supervise security to enable the opening of Gaza's air and sea ports. Even the Beilin-Abed Rabbo Geneva accord does not envisage the opening of Palestinian ports and border crossings without at least an interim Israeli security presence. True, Sharon's disengagement plan does talk about reopening the ports and borders without an Israeli presence at some point in the future. But I doubt he thought he would be taken so seriously by the Egyptians.
Egypt wants all Israeli forces to leave Gaza, including the Philadelphi road, and to pledge not to take action against acts of terrorism emanating from the Strip. This is understandable in view of Cairo's fears for the safety of its peacekeepers in Gaza. But it is virtually impossible for Israel to totally concede its right to preempt or retaliate against attacks from Gaza.
Egypt wants Israel to open the long awaited safe passage route from Gaza to the West Bank, thereby ensuring that the Israeli withdrawal does not completely cut Gaza off from the rest of Palestine. But this is precisely what Sharon hopes to do: cut Gaza loose, thereby giving him more freedom of maneuver to hold onto large parts of the West Bank.
Sharon is apparently prepared to contemplate a significant shift in the Israeli-Egyptian security relationship if this helps him leave Gaza. But he is hardly likely to comply with Egypt's conditions.
Cairo's plan appears to have become too ambitious. The Egyptians have already begun hedging on their timetable, which was supposed to start in mid-June. Perhaps some aspects of the plan, like international forces and renewed peace talks linked to the roadmap, are mere window dressing, intended to keep the Quartet happy. Let's hope so. The idea should be to help get Israel and its settlements out of Gaza and enable it to stay out, and to help the Palestinians get a grip on the internal security situation--nothing less, but nothing more.
Like those before them who attempted over the past four years to end this conflict, the Egyptians may soon become frustrated with both Arafat and Sharon. They may then seek alternative ways to rebuff the threat of radical Islam in Gaza and to deflect American pressures for reform--the real reasons for their current intervention. Or they may continue to cultivate unrealistically broad expectations. Either way we are liable soon to confront the thesis presented disdainfully by Joseph Samaha in al-Safir on June 24: "'Mubarak's plan' is the missing link between a unilateral withdrawal that may never take place, and a roadmap that may never be implemented."
Yossi Alpher is coeditor of bitterlemons.org and bitterlemons-international.org. He is former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University and a former senior advisor to PM Ehud Barak.
A PALESTINIAN VIEW
Supporting withdrawal, not the disengagement plan
a conversation with Hanna Amireh
bitterlemons: The Egyptian initiative was apparently needed because a direct bilateral agreement on withdrawal between Israel and the Palestinians was impossible. Why is that?
Amireh: The Israelis are heading toward consolidating the occupation in the West Bank through the separation fence, settlement expansion, and all kinds of oppression against the Palestinians. We think that this disengagement plan is using the withdrawal from the Gaza Strip, planned for March 2005, to impose a kind of engagement in the West Bank through the separation wall. A one-sided solution is being imposed on the Palestinians.
bitterlemons: What do you think of the Egyptian initiative?
Amireh: The Egyptians themselves say they don't have an initiative, but they are trying to take advantage of the opportunity presented by Israeli withdrawal from the Gaza Strip. They would like to help the Palestinians to get control over the areas in the Gaza Strip from which the Israelis are going to withdraw.
The Egyptians say they do not wish to market the disengagement plan. The difference between the disengagement plan and withdrawal is that the disengagement plan includes expansion in the West Bank, while the Egyptians aim to help the Palestinians with the withdrawal from the Gaza Strip. Nobody wants the Gaza Strip, perhaps not even the Palestinians, so Israel is seeking to bargain Gaza for the West Bank.
The Palestinian leadership rejects this approach, even though everybody in the world--especially the Israelis and Americans--says the disengagement plan is the first step in implementing the roadmap. We think that on the contrary, it is not a step toward implementing the roadmap; it is an alternative step.
bitterlemons: Why do some Fatah members oppose the Egyptian initiative?
Amireh: They have certain fears about the future Egyptian role in the Gaza Strip. They think maybe the Egyptians want to play a security role in the Gaza Strip. Also there are certain Arabs who oppose the Egyptian initiative, like the Syrians. Last week, about ten Palestinian organizations in Damascus issued a declaration against the Egyptian initiative. Hamas and Islamic Jihad are opposed, because--I think--they are concerned that the Egyptians are trying to consolidate the role of the Palestinian National Authority, so this does not fit with their interests.
bitterlemons: How likely is it that the PNA and non-PNA factions like Hamas and Islamic Jihad will be able to agree on withdrawal terms?
Amireh: They don't now. They have opposite positions. The PNA supports the Egyptian plan.
bitterlemons: Do they all have to agree in order for the initiative to succeed?
Amireh: Hamas and Jihad could sabotage the plan, using different means, like military attacks. On the other hand, there is an opportunity to achieve agreement through the internal Palestinian dialogue. We think that there should be concurrence, but now there is not.
Hanna Amireh is a member of the PLO Executive Committee and the Politburo of the Palestinian People's Party.
bitterlemons: How do you understand Egypt's motives and objectives in launching its Gaza initiative?
Amidror: There are three reasons for the Egyptians' involvement in the Gaza Strip. First is their understanding that they cannot claim to be a leader of the Arab world without doing anything. If they want to be engaged, they have to contribute more than their limited contribution until now. Second, they understand that their position with the United States is somehow connected to a positive image regarding the process. And third, they understand that chaos in Gaza might somehow influence the street in Cairo. I think the strongest element is the first and not the third. At the end of the day the influence of Palestinian chaos is minimal in Cairo.
bitterlemons: What will constitute the success of this project?
Amidror: [The idea is to] give the Egyptians the chance to teach the Palestinians how to organize themselves and help them be really determined to fight terrorism--which is the main problem of the Palestinians--and to do it without erosion of Israel's ability to fight terrorism. There is no question that if the Egyptians can convince the terrorist organizations to be more constructive after the unilateral retreat and to begin to build their own society instead of promoting terrorism, this is very positive from our point of view. If the Egyptians can convince [Palestinian leader Yasser] Arafat to give up his control over the security establishment and build a real force that will deal with the terrorists, criminals and corruption inside Gaza--three closely connected elements--this will be helpful for us. If they can stop the smuggling of munitions from Egypt into Gaza, it would be very important for reducing the level of terrorism coming from Gaza and would benefit both Israel and the Palestinians.
bitterlemons: Are you optimistic that Egypt will succeed in these endeavors?
Amidror: The problem is that I'm not sure the Egyptians are ready to pay the price, meaning to be involved in friction with Hamas and the other terrorist organizations. And I'm not sure Arafat is ready to implement what is being asked of him. At the end of the day we might find ourselves in a worse situation, in which we commit ourselves not to act against terrorism inside Gaza and at the same time nothing is done by the Egyptians.
bitterlemons: How do you understand Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's motives for inviting in the Egyptians?
Amidror: Sharon understands that he's taking a huge risk for the security of Israel by the unilateral retreat, and he wants to share responsibility for the results with another Arab country. He would like to believe that this time the Egyptians will act totally differently from the way they acted up until now. We have to remember that they have the sovereignty and control over the entrances to the tunnels used to smuggle weapons into Gaza in recent years.
bitterlemons: So is Sharon adopting a radical new strategy toward Egypt?
Amidror: I hope those Israelis who negotiate with the Egyptians don't make a huge mistake by giving up one of the main achievements of the political peace agreement with the Egyptians and allowing the Egyptians to help the Palestinians with military forces. What the Palestinians need is domestic security organization, not military forces.
bitterlemons: Let's assume Egypt succeeds in Gaza. How does this affect the West Bank?
Amidror: The West Bank is totally different strategically. I don't think we can copy the Egyptian experience in Gaza into Judea and Samaria. But after a few years of Egyptian peace in Gaza, we might learn some lessons [regarding the West Bank].
bitterlemons: Back to Gaza: are you optimistic about the chances for Egyptian success?
Amidror: No, I'm skeptical about the Egyptians. In our experience with them, they begin with high profile promises of a rosy future, and at the end the implementation is very poor and the results are doubtful.
For example, for many years they promised to stop the smuggling of weapons into the Gaza Strip but did not. Remember the Karine A [Palestinian arms smuggling ship]? Its target was Alexandria. From my personal experience, I can tell you that we tried to organize a visit by our National Defense College to Egypt and couldn't succeed, nor could we organize a reciprocal visit by them.
bitterlemons: To sum up, if Egypt does its part, are you in favor of disengagement from Gaza?
Amidror: At the end of the day, none of the real problems will be solved by unilateral withdrawal, while the security risk Israel is taking is so high that it is a mistake. But we live in a democracy: as the decision is approved by the government and the Knesset, we should minimize the risks and optimize the advantages that some people believe might come out of it.
Major General (ret.) Yaacov Amidror served for most of his IDF career in intelligence. His last two postings were military secretary of the minister of defense and commander of the IDF colleges.
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