12 Jun

Keeping it going

A flurry of Arab diplomatic activity aims to build on Obama’s outreach to the Muslim world and to remove all obstacles — including Palestinian disunity — to Middle East peace talks

By Dina Ezzat , Al-Ahram Weekly Online :

Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal arrived in Cairo this week for the first time in close to a year. Meshaal’s visit, upon the invitation of General Intelligence Chief Omar Suleiman, came less than a week after the much celebrated visit of US President Barack Obama where in a keynote speech he acknowledged Hamas and called on the Islamist resistance movement to engage in peacemaking.

The visit of the influential Hamas leader is meant to set the stage for a new — and Egyptian sponsors hope conclusive — round of national dialogue talks for all Palestinian factions due to convene in Cairo 7 July. Egyptian officials close to the preparations of the next round say that both Egypt and Hamas are “encouraged” by Obama’s signal to “engage” Hamas. They add that Obama’s speech made it clear for all concerned that Palestinian national reconciliation should be reached sooner rather than later.

In the words of one informed diplomat who spoke to Al-Ahram Weekly on condition of anonymity, “the Americans — to judge not just by the Obama speech and talks in Cairo and Riyadh, but also by successive delegations to the region — seem serious about getting engaged in talks for peace. Now the Palestinians and Arabs in general have to work to make these talks possible.” He added that if Obama is determined to pursue Middle East peace, “irrespective of any artificial deadline or timetables”, then “we’d better strip the Israelis of the pretext that there is no ready Palestinian partner”.

According to this source there is no confirmation that the next round of national reconciliation talks will succeed, but there is determination on the side of the Egyptian sponsor to push things forward.

In parallel to the launch of a new round of inter-Palestinian talks, Arab foreign ministers are also planning to meet 17 June. According to press statements made by Arab League Secretary- General Amr Moussa, the objective of the next extraordinary meeting is to “formulate a new line of Arab diplomacy” compatible with the spirit of engagement the US president proposed, especially during his recent Middle East tour.

The Obama speech, Moussa said in recent press statements, marks the “adoption of a balanced approach on the side of the US” towards peacemaking in the Middle East. The new line of Arab diplomacy to be sought is not meant to “amend” the Arab peace initiative but rather to encourage positive engagement on the part of Israel. If Israel moves on the right path, especially by freezing the construction of illegal Israeli settlements on occupied Palestinian territories, then Arabs would be in a position to reciprocate.

Following talks in Cairo Tuesday, with Suleiman and Moussa, Meshaal said he shared with a sense of encouragement over the new language that Obama is using. Meshaal underlined, however, that “what counts for us is the policies”. Meshaal said that short of the freezing of all illegal Israeli settlement construction on occupied Palestinian territories it would be difficult to see any chance to reach peace. Meshaal said Hamas would not block a peace deal based on the establishment of an independent and viable Palestinian state within 1967 borders in line with the Palestinian national accord.

Also this week, US Assistant Under- Secretary of State William Burns held talks in Cairo with top Egyptian officials, including President Hosni Mubarak and Amr Moussa, on ways to formulate a plan of action for the resumption of peace talks. Following talks with Moussa at the Arab League Saturday, Burns affirmed: “there is an opportunity for a new beginning [on peacemaking in the Middle East]”. However, he added that for this beginning to succeed, all must contribute positively. “We all have a responsibility,” Burns said.

According to Burns, there is “a real sense of urgency” for Obama in re- launching peace talks, especially on the Palestinian-Israeli track. Burns offered no specific date for the announcement of a fully-fledged Obama policy on the Middle East, but he indicated — as was confirmed by Palestinian and Egyptian officials — that more should be heard around the first week of July.

The visit of George Mitchell, US presidential envoy to the Middle East, to Israel Tuesday is meant to delineate the final points of this policy. Following talks with top Israeli officials, Mitchell will talk to Palestinian officials. He is then expected to visit Damascus for talks with Syrian officials and perhaps Meshaal, who is based in the Syrian capital. On Thursday, Mitchell is expected in Cairo for talks with President Mubarak.

On the eve of his Middle East visit, Mitchell affirmed that Obama wants “immediate talks”. Obama had spoken for about 20 minutes with Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu before sending Mitchell to the region. According to Burns, the basic US message to Israel is that all partners in the Middle East “should live up to the challenge”.

Egyptian and Arab diplomats in Cairo say they are waiting for Netanyahu’s policy speech — and maybe a subsequent Meshaal policy speech — before getting into the details of re- launching peace talks. They agree on one thing: talks will resume within weeks. Where would they lead? There is no clear answer as yet.

From the Egyptian perspective, the resumption of peace talks and positive US engagement in the Middle East is improving bilateral relations. “Egyptian-American relations are moving on a positive path because there is a will on the side of the [new US] administration to conduct dialogue rather than dictate policies as was the case with the previous administration.”

Egyptian and Arab officials say they are considering stepping up consultations with — and maybe also visits to — the US in order to keep the “positive” momentum going. “We want details beyond the speech” and the guidelines that were offered during the Obama talks in Riyadh and Cairo, commented one Egyptian diplomat. He said that future talks between Egyptian, as well as Arab, officials and their US counterparts should focus on these details. (see pp. 7, 10-17)

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