Monday, January 26, 2009

Egypt slams arab summit

Al-Ahram Weekly

This week, Egypt moved from the subtle to the upfront and officially expressed opposition to a request presented by Qatar for the convening of an emergency Arab summit on Gaza. The proposal was initially forwarded by Qatar to the Arab League at the outset of the Israeli aggression on Gaza 27 December.

"Arab leaders agreed to meet in Kuwait on 19 January. Obviously Gaza will be discussed there and at that time. We now believe that time has to be used to work on making progress on efforts designed to secure a ceasefire," Foreign Minister Ahmed Abul-Gheit said Wednesday. Abul-Gheit's statements came against a backdrop of a clear split in the Arab position over the convocation of the Arab summit proposed by Qatar. While Cairo and Riyadh were lobbying to block the summit, Qatar and Syria were pushing hard for its convocation. "There is a very sad and distrubing Arab split. This is not what we need to address the disaster in Gaza," said Arab League Secretary-General Amr Moussa Wednesday.

At the time, Cairo, along with Riyadh and several other Arab capitals, expressed its unfavourable disposition to the proposal. "Our position was not against the Arab summit, but it was against a summit against the backdrop of clear and deep Arab differences over how to handle Gaza," commented an Egyptian diplomatic source. He added, "One has to be seriously asking for trouble to think that you can get all Arab leaders with their differences in one room amid angry public opinion -- unless the objective is to get leaders into a confrontation."

On Sunday, as Israeli aggression on Gaza continued unabated despite a UN Security Council resolution calling for a ceasefire and several diplomatic moves tailored to serve the same purpose, Qatar reintroduced its demand for an emergency summit and managed, according to Qatari diplomatic sources, to secure the support of half of the 22-member Arab League states. The quorum for an emergency Arab summit is stipulated in the charter of the Arab organisation as 15 approving countries. "So far we only have 14 countries that support the convocation of the summit," Moussa said as the Weekly went to press.

Egypt was still on the blocking side. And following an Egyptian-Saudi closed meeting in Jeddah, Egyptian opposition was supported by Saudi Arabia. Kuwait, host and chair of the upcoming development summit, toed the same line.

"Now we are fighting over the summit. I thought we should focus on the situation in Gaza and how to deal with it," criticised one Egyptian diplomat. He added that Egypt did conduct "intensive talks" to block the quorum for the summit.

According to Egyptian official quarters, Cairo has more than one reason to oppose a Qatar summit. First, diplomats argue, Arab countries are not in agreement on how to handle the Gaza crisis. Some countries, including Egypt and Saudi Arabia, are firmly opposed to the promotion of "uncalculated retaliatory measures against Israel and the US".

For instance, Cairo is not considering expelling the Israeli ambassador in Egypt or recalling its ambassador from Tel Aviv. And Riyadh has declared it has no intention of suspending oil exports to the West. These are demands that Egypt and Saudi Arabia fear would be presented at the Arab summit. "We know that instead of discussing Gaza the summit would end up discussing inter-Arab differences over relations with Israel and the US, and this is not the right moment to do so," the Egyptian diplomat added.

Egypt, above all, is not willing to get into a high- level argument over its policy on the Rafah Crossing. Qatar and Syria have demanded that Egypt unconditionally and unilaterally open Rafah, a call Egypt had refused.

Egypt is also not willing to entertain any proposals on facilitating the armament of Hamas. Egyptian officials are not shy in criticising Hamas's political decisions that they -- despite empathy with the people of Gaza -- hold responsible for "giving Israel the excuse to launch the attack". Egypt previously blamed Hamas for declining to extend a truce with Israel -- however unfair -- last month.

Above all, Cairo is not willing to share with every Arab country the details of its regional and international consultations over a Gaza ceasefire to be followed by a new truce -- even if temporary. "The negotiations have entered a very sensitive phase now and maybe -- just maybe -- we can get something done in four or five days. This is the worst time to go public with details," the same diplomat added.

Wednesday Abul-Gheit told a press conference following talks with visiting UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon that some sort of progress was being achieved. Moussa supported the qualification of Abul-Gheit, and the UN secretary-general said he hoped to "see a ceasefire soon".

This week, Cairo has been in talks with Hamas representatives and Israeli officials over the prospects of implementing its initiative calling for a humanitarian ceasefire to be followed by talks for a truce. The Hamas delegation expressed reservations over the nature of the ceasefire proposed, the security guarantees demanded by Israel in return for the ceasefire, and Egyptian demands in relation to a steady daily operation of the Rafah Crossing. However, Egyptian officials said Wednesday afternoon that Hamas was not as opposed to the deal, which Cairo is trying to promote, as before. "Flexibility" was in the pipeline on the side of Hamas, they said. And, they added, to a lesser degree on the side of Israel.

Israeli officials suggested that the security guarantees included in the Egyptian proposal, facilitated by the French, would be "suffice to block the armament and activities of Hamas once and for all", one Egyptian source reported. They, however, still demanded modifications to these security guarantees and have been lobbying the US to pressure Egypt on this matter, the source added.

Egyptian officials say that Cairo is trying hard to narrow the gap between Hamas and Israel, in order that even a temporary ceasefire is concluded. They acknowledged a parallel but coordinated Turkish effort on that front. France too is involved in the talks, but behind the scenes, they said.

Egypt has tried to promote its initiative this week with visiting officials, including European foreign ministers, Quartet Envoy Tony Blair, and UN Secretary-General. Wednesday, the UN secretary- general gave strong support to the Egyptian efforts and told reporters that he would be working to help make it work given that it could provide a ceasefire, humanitarian relief and a durable truce between Israel and Hamas in Gaza.

Egyptian diplomatic sources suggest that there is a growing support behind the Egyptian idea of stopping the war and securing a truce for a few months that could then be renewed. "Yes, Israeli operations on the ground do not suggest that it is going to give in easily to a ceasefire, but we are getting more support from the international players," the diplomatic source argued. He added that there is "a process in motion" and may be there would be good news "within days rather than weeks".

Once a ceasefire is secured, Egypt is planning to host a donors conference to help with the reconstruction of Gaza. It is also planning to host an intensive round of Palestinian dialogue to secure reconciliation between Fatah, in control of the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank, and Hamas, in control of Gaza. Abul-Gheit said that Cairo has sufficient regional and international support over both meetings. The foreign minister of Norway was scheduled to discuss the donors confernce with his Egyptian opposite number in Cairo Wednesday evening. Saleh Al-Bashir, the foreign minister of Jordan, was also expected Wednesday evening for talks on Palestinian reconciliaiton scenarios.

For Egypt, it is unwise to abandon this process for an Arab summit that the most reserved Egyptian officials qualify as "nothing more than an opportunity for some Arab leaders to address Arab public opinion when Palestinians are dying in Gaza". No Arab summit, Egyptian officials say, is capable of sparing Palestinians in Gaza. Only an agreement between Hamas and Israel can do so, and an Arab summit is not the venue to conclude it.