"In a number of hours Meshal will arrive in Egypt." That was the headline on the Internet site of the Egyptian daily al-Ahram on Friday evening. According to one of the paper's senior editors, the source of the information was "an Egyptian government official. We understood that the matter is final." But all the preparations for the "critical visit" went up in smoke when a Hamas spokesman made it clear there were still several issues to clarify, and Meshal would visit Cairo in only a few days.
Meshal is playing not only with Israel's nerves, but also with those of Egypt. This stems mostly from his success in transforming himself into a sort of "super-president" of Palestine: neutralizing the influence of Mahmoud Abbas, tugging at the strings of Arab diplomacy, determining who the authorized mediator (Egypt or Qatar) will be and by being the most active non-partner Israel has. All this when, in retrospect, Israel could have prevented his influence from developing had it agreed, at the right time, to release prisoners into the hands of Abbas or Mubarak. Now, in any solution, Meshal will benefit the most.
On the face of it, there are three issues preventing the completion of negotiations between Meshal and Egypt, once the matter of the numbers of prisoners appears to have been solved. The first is the identity of the prisoners who are likely to be released; the second is the timing of the release; and the third is the establishment of a Palestinian national unity government that will operate in line with the Quartet's preconditions.
Meshal is demanding that the prisoners released include members of Hamas, while Prime Minister Olmert is adamant they not be included. The exiled Hamas leader would also like to see Tanzim leader Marwan Barghouti and members of the Palestinian Legislative Council released, thus scoring points in the Fatah camp.
Meshal also insists that the release of the prisoners coincides with the release of Gilad Shalit, and not come later, thus preventing Israel from claiming that the freeing of prisoners had nothing to do with the release of the Israel Defense Forces soldier.
The forming of a national unity government has been stymied over the issue of recognition of Israel. The Quartet demanded that for any contact with the Palestinian, Hamas-led government, it must recognize Israel, renounce violence and accept all earlier accords signed between Israel and the Palestinians. Abbas and Egypt are aware that it does not matter who the members of the new Palestinian government will be, because without some form of recognition for Israel, it will be impossible to escape the current economic isolation of the Palestinian Authority or receive any form of aid.
The issue of recognition depends on Meshal's willingness to accept the Arab initiative of the Beirut summit in 2002, which offers a two-state solution and normalization in return for an Israeli withdrawal to the 1967 borders. Meshal insists on the decisions of the Khartoum summit of 1967 - no peace, no recognition, no negotiations - to be included in the new government's guiding principles.
The third issue should not affect negotiations for the release of Shalit. But Egypt and the European Union consider the exchange of prisoners an opportunity for change, in which the Palestinian government is recognized and a way out of the crisis is found by linking the two issues. Meshal is willing, but only in terms that are convenient for him. This is likely to require further rounds of talks.
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