Cairo Talks Produce No Agreement, but Egypt Sees Momentum Building

Recent talks between the Palestinian Authority and the various Palestinian terrorist factions failed to arrive either at a cooperation agreement or a cease-fire with Israel — but they did demonstrate the ongoing power shift in Palestinian politics.

In the latest round of talks, the Egyptians summoned 12 Palestinian factions, including fundamentalist terror groups and more secular hard-liners such as the Damascus-based Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command of Ahmed Jibril, for a series of talks in Cairo.

The five days of talks were designed to bridge differences within the Palestinian political camp as a precondition for a possible cease-fire with Israel.

Shortly after the talks ended last week, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak said he would be the first Arab leader to host Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.

Mubarak was one of the first world leaders to congratulate Sharon on his re-election last week, and he used the opportunity to invite Sharon “to meet and talk.”

The invitation came despite the Israel Defense Force’s military activity in the Gaza Strip. The IDF responded to intensified Palestinian rocket fire against Israeli communities.

The invitation to Sharon is part of Mubarak’s initiative to solidify Egypt’s role as a key intermediary in Israeli- Palestinian diplomacy. Though the latest round of Palestinian talks in Cairo again ended unsuccessfully, Mubarak apparently believes that a successful visit with Sharon would allow him to further press the Palestinian groups for an agreement.

If so, he’ll need to focus on Hamas, which has been reluctant to accept the kind of compromises Mubarak is demanding.

The Palestinian Authority has been steadily weakened both by heavy Israeli military retaliation for terrorism and by its loss of control over the various Palestinian factions during the intifada.

P.A. President Yasser Arafat would seem to have an interest in stabilizing the internal Palestinian scene.

But Hamas, which has seen its standing dramatically enhanced in the Cairo talks, demanded a 40 percent share of power in P.A. institutions, claiming that reflects the group’s level of popular support.

Arafat, whose control of the Palestinian Authority already is shaky, didn’t agree to Hamas’ condition.

With Palestinian elections postponed, a draft constitution shelved and promised reforms to the Palestinian Authority on hold, the radical groups had hoped to adopt a plan calling for members of each Palestinian faction — including Islamists, Communists and radicals — to serve as representatives in the Palestinian Authority.

At times, it seemed that the Palestinian Authority and the fundamentalist opposition groups were on the brink of an agreement.

Last week, opposition representatives in Cairo spread rumors of an “unprecedented” agreement to share power and jointly run the Palestinian Authority. In the end there was no such agreement, but Hamas could celebrate an upgrade in its political standing as a result of the talks.

It had received full recognition from the Egyptian government and legitimacy equal to that granted the Palestinian Authority.

The parties discussed a wide range of intra-Palestinian differences, many of which could be bridged.

But Hamas did not agree to an Egyptian formula stating that all Palestinian organizations recognize the PLO — which dominates the Palestinian Authority — as “the sole and legitimate representative of the Palestinian people.”

Having failed to agree on power sharing, the idea of a temporary cease-fire with Israel also was dropped from the agenda.

For now, the beleaguered Arafat, 73, continues to rule — at least pro forma — from his besieged headquarters in Ramallah.

Last week, Israel rejected another request from Arafat to move from Ramallah to the Gaza Strip.

Arafat has not left his headquarters since January 2002, except for one day in May, shortly after the end of a massive Israeli anti-terror invasion of the West Bank, when Arafat went on a tour of Ramallah, Bethlehem and Jenin.

In Gaza — where Israeli troops have not reoccupied most of the cities, as they have done in the West Bank — Arafat would have more freedom of movement.

The Palestinian Authority is still more or less functioning in Gaza, and Arafat could more easily rehabilitate the government in the face of the increasing challenge from Hamas. But when Israel and the Palestinians agreed on a plan last year to do just that — allowing P.A. security services to resume operations in Gaza as a show of their seriousness — Arafat refused to abide by it.

However, Mubarak apparently still believes the time is ripe for some serious soul searching in the Palestinian camp that could pave the way for a cease-fire.

Some Palestinian influentials, like Mahmoud Abbas, Arafat’s deputy, have voiced regret over the militarization of the intifada, indirectly holding the Palestinians responsible for the escalation.

If such views become more widespread, Mubarak hopes, pressure might be exerted on Sharon to agree to a truce and honor his verbal commitment to President Bush’s vision of Israeli-Palestinian peace.

One lesson from the recent talks is that Arafat, who always has claimed that as head of the PLO he “is the sole and legitimate representative of the Palestinian people,” in reality is only a partial representative. As much as Arafat, Hamas holds the key to a breakthrough in the bloody deadlock between Israel and the Palestinians.

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