Israeli and Arab leaders met this week to discuss ways to keep Hamas in the diplomatic wings, but the radical Palestinian group still managed to grab headlines.
Hours before Ehud Olmert and Mahmoud Abbas converged on this Red Sea resort for a summit hosted by Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and co-sponsored by Jordan’s King Abdullah, Hamas issued the first audiotape of Gilad Shalit, a kidnapped Israeli soldier held in Gaza for exactly a year.
Shalit, a 20-year-old conscript promoted to sergeant in captivity, read from a text that was posted on the Internet and sounded as though it had been written by a Palestinian psychological warfare team.
“I regret the lack of interest shown in me by the Israeli government and the IDF,” Shalit said, adding that the Olmert government should heed the Hamas’ ransom demand of a mass release of Palestinian prisoners.
His captors said after Shalit was grabbed in a June 25, 2006 cross-border raid that he was in good health. But on the tape, the soldier complained: “My medical condition is deteriorating, and I need to be admitted to a hospital.”
Shalit’s family quickly vouched for the authenticity of the tape, though there was no way of knowing when it was made.
Olmert, who has spoken of a possible new peace opening with Abbas since the Palestinian Authority split over Hamas’ violent seizure of Gaza, tried to deny the Islamist group its propaganda coup.
Aides to the Israeli prime minister said he raised Shalit during his talks with Abbas, but he would not allow the issue to dominate the summit.
When it came time for the four leaders to speak at the one-day gathering, Olmert did not even mention Hamas by name, saying only that Shalit, like two Israeli soldiers held by Lebanese Hezbollah guerrillas since last July, had been “kidnapped by extremists.”
“We will spare no effort in returning them home,” Olmert said in a speech, facing his! Arab in terlocutors across an enormous round table.
But rather than speak about a possible release of the more that 1,000 jailed Palestinians, “including hardened terrorists,” demanded by Hamas, Olmert announced at the summit that he was ordering the freedom of some 250 members of Abbas’ Fatah faction convicted of non-lethal attacks on Israelis.
Israel, he added, will transfer hundreds of millions of dollars in withheld tax revenues to the Palestinian Authority, boost bilateral trade and ease restrictions on Palestinian travel in the West Bank. This was the de facto mandate of an emergency government Abbas formed earlier this month after dissolving the Fatah coalition with Hamas.
“The new government of the Palestinian Authority, which recognizes Israel’s right to exist and a solution of two states for two peoples, which is ready to implement the agreements signed, one which eschews terror and violence as a means and a goal, and a government which has no members of terrorist organizations, is a government which we recognize,” Olmert said.
He then endorsed a peace plan that many Middle East pundits have long assumed to be defunct: “We will work together to implement the ‘road map’ and advance the goals set out therein.”
In June 2002, President Bush outlined a vision of two states, Israel and Palestine, existing peacefully alongside one another by 2005. By early 2003 the vision had a name, the “road map,” and its contingencies were that the Palestinians end terrorism and Israel freezes settlement building. A key difference between U.S. and Israeli interpretations was whether those were to occur simultaneously; former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon insisted that terrorism end first.
The road map is guided by the Quartet, a diplomatic grouping of the United States, Russia, the United Nations and the European Union.
After Hamas’ victory in the Palestinian legislative elections in January 2006, the road map was in a deep freeze, although the Americans still considered it a guiding principle.
For his part, Abbas told the Sharm el-Sheik gathering, “It is time to relaunch the peace process” to tackle the toughest, central issues of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
“Despite the bloody coup in Gaza, we are still determined to work relentlessly to achieve the independence and the freedom of our people,” he said. “My hand is extended to work together with the Israelis on the basis of the Arab peace initiative, President Bush’s vision of two states, international resolutions and the signed agreements.”
Hamas’ quasi-coup in Gaza and the ensuing schism with Fatah has raised speculation that the Palestinian Authority could devolve into separate mini-states in Gaza and the West Bank.
Mubarak rejected this idea.
“We agreed on the need to support Palestinian legitimacy and aid the Palestinian Authority and President Abu Mazen, on the unity of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, and on the need to contain the humanitarian impact of the latest developments on the Palestinian people,” the Egyptian president said in his address at the summit, using Abbas’ popular name.
Mubarak has played host to such summits here before. One, the “Peacemakers’ Conference” of 1996, aimed to curb the influence of Hamas after it first gained global notoriety with a wave of suicide bombings in Israel.
Guests arriving at Sharm’s airport take a sign-posted “Peace Road” through a stretch of sweltering desert flanked by the serene Red Sea and forbiddingly jagged Sinai Mountains.
The setting seems far removed from the furiously congested Gaza, but it is not. Egypt is on the strip’s southern border, and has come under increasing pressure from Israel and the United States to stop arms smuggling to Hamas.
The geography, not to mention Cairo’s role as a major U.S. client in the region, has long drawn the attention of Islamist radicals both local and foreign.
Ayman Al-Zawahri, th! e Egypti an-born deputy head of al-Qaida, issued a statement Monday calling for Muslims to rally to the aid of Hamas.
“Provide them with money, do your best to get it there, break the siege imposed on them by crusaders and Arab leader traitors,” Zawahri said, alluding to Mubarak and other rulers who favor a regional peace deal with Israel.
Whatever the outcome of Monday’s summit in terms of Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking, it was clear that Egypt and Jordan would not push for an end to the Western isolation of Hamas.
But in another bid to shore up Abbas, Olmert said he acceded to the P.A. president’s request for Israel to continue supplying electricity, water, medicine and food to Gaza.
“We have no interest in punishing this population simply because it is ruled by a terrorist organization and extremist forces interested in destruction and ruin,” Olmert said.