How to turn the disaster of the radical Hamas’ capture of Gaza into a political opportunity was the main focus of this week’s four-way summit in the Egyptian resort town of Sharm el-Sheik.
Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, Jordanian King Abdullah, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert all expressed hope for a renewed Israeli-Palestinian peace process now that Abbas has set up a moderate, Fatah-led government without Hamas.
The subtext was clear: A vibrant Israeli-Palestinian peace process could help stop the radical, Iranian-backed power that Hamas represents and which all four leaders fear from spreading.
But although they agreed on the general direction and even on some of the specifics, there were major differences on a number of key issues.
Mubarak, for example, spoke of the urgent need for Fatah and Hamas to reconcile. The Palestinians, he said, needed to speak with a single, united voice. But a new Fatah-Hamas deal is precisely what Olmert does not want to see.
He fears the return of Hamas would undermine any chance for a genuine Israeli-Palestinian dialogue. And he is worried that Abbas may be pressured into striking a new deal with the radicals.
More significant, whereas Mubarak, Abdullah and Abbas all want to see accelerated talks on a final Israeli-Palestinian peace deal, Olmert has his doubts. He sees the split between Gaza and the West Bank as making the conflict easier to manage but more difficult to resolve.
Olmert favors a more careful, step-by-step approach that gradually would create conditions for a final settlement rather than making a gigantic leap toward a peace accord that would likely fail.
In the summit’s concluding news conference, Mubarak, Abdullah and Abbas all urged quick movement toward a two-state solution, Israel and Palestine, side by side, at peace. Abbas proposed setting a clear timetable for negotiations and insisted ! that all the core issues, including borders, refugees, Jerusalem and water, were soluble.
The new Palestinian government under former finance minister Salam Fayyad and the international community’s lifting of its economic boycott on the Palestinians created genuine opportunities for peace, Abbas said.
Saeb Erekat, the chief Palestinian negotiator, added that the establishment of a Palestinian state was now the most urgent issue on Abbas’ agenda.
Many Israeli analysts, however, doubt whether Israel and the Palestinians are yet in a position to cut a final peace deal. They argue that Olmert would not be able to satisfy Palestinian demands on borders, refugees and Jerusalem, and Abbas will be hard pressed to keep a lid on terror in the West Bank where he is in control, let alone in Gaza, where he is not.
Olmert, therefore, seems to favor a slower, interim approach to take steps to improve the quality of life on the West Bank, create a model Palestinian polity and then build toward a final-status agreement.
But the Palestinians want final-status talks to start now. Nimmer Hamad, one of Abbas’ top advisers, told Israel Radio that it was time Olmert recognized Abbas as a genuine peace partner.
Hamad said Abbas would disarm all militia groups, including Fatah’s own Al-Aksa battalions, to create conditions for peace talks. If there is no “political horizon,” he warned, extremism will grow.
Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice are sympathetic to that position. They agree that Israel and the Palestinians should negotiate a final-status agreement even if it cannot be implemented for some time.
American and Israeli diplomats call it a “shelf agreement” ready to be taken down and implemented as soon conditions allow. Such an agreement would be a strong incentive for Palestinians to get their act together, they say.
Olmert, however, is adamantly opposed to cutting such a deal. He arg! ues that a deferred agreement would only invite pressure on Israel to make further concessions so it can be implemented.
Given the readiness on the Arab side to go for a final peace deal, and the fact that a true political horizon for the Palestinians would be the best way to strengthen Abbas and the moderate cause, the international community may press for it.
If as expected, the diplomatic Quartet of the United States, the European Union, Russia and the United Nations appoints outgoing British Prime Minister Tony Blair as its special Middle East envoy, he may well focus on getting this shelf agreement.
In the meantime, Olmert intends to go ahead with confidence-building measures. At the summit he did what no Israeli prime minister has done before in such strong terms: He delivered an impassioned recognition of Palestinian suffering.
“We are not indifferent to your suffering, and we are ready to take steps to bring it to an end,” he declared.
Olmert went on to announce that he intends to release 250 Fatah prisoners as a goodwill gesture.
The Israeli leader is also considering a number of steps to improve the quality of Palestinian life in the West Bank. These include releasing more than $500 million in Palestinian tax money in installments, on the condition that none of it reaches terrorists; easing movement by lifting roadblocks, although the Israeli army and Shin Bet warn this could invite a new wave of suicide bombings; and renewing economic and trade ties.
Olmert said he intended to meet Abbas at least once every two weeks to take the new process forward.
“We will work with this government which recognizes Israel, accepts previous agreements and rejects violence” to “create political opportunities and a better life,” he said.
Olmert’s policy toward the Hamas regime in Gaza will be the opposite. While Israel will allow the flow of humanitarian aid into Gaza, it will do all it can to isolate the Hamas governmen! t.
Already this seems to be having an effect. On the first anniversary of his abduction, the captors of Gilad Shalit released an audio tape in which the kidnapped Israeli soldier urges the government to do a deal to secure his release.
Pundits see the release of the tape, the first sign of life from Shalit since his capture, as evidence that Hamas, ignored even by some Arab countries, is seeking ways to get back into the game.
Now, as Olmert and Abbas make progress, the question is: Will Hamas be ready to actually effect Shalit’s release to alleviate its growing isolation?