The most significant event of this week, if it happens, will be the laying of the cornerstone of the sub-agreement, which will serve as the introduction to the mini-agreement, which is likely to advance the continuation of negotiations over the "shelf agreement."
The above-mentioned event is the scheduled visit to Israel by Egyptian intelligence chief Omar Suleiman, who hopes to reach a sub-agreement over the opening of the Rafah border crossing. It was the breach of that crossing in February by Hamas that set off the current major crisis in Egyptian-Israeli relations, and illustrated just how impotent the Palestinian Authority is, while demonstrating the power of Hamas, which is capable - from the prison that is the Gaza Strip - of controlling foreign policy moves to which it is not a partner.
For a month now, Egypt has been conducting talks with the various Palestinian factions, including Hamas and Islamic Jihad, in order to hammer out a formula acceptable to all parties. Or, to be precise, to most of the parties, since the PA will have to accept whatever Hamas, Egypt and Israel will agree on. The same is true for the Europeans, whose participation is supposed to save the honor of the border-crossings accord signed in 2005. Hamas also wants to decide who will represent the PA as border monitors. It is willing, under certain conditions, to not be physically present at the crossing itself, but is in effect demanding control over movement through it.
Hamas also wants the Israeli monitoring cameras to be removed. Israel is standing firm on this, but is open to finding an alternative electronic means that would enable Egypt to supervise border traffic. In truth, everyone understands that the aim of the agreement is to preserve the parties' honor and to allow Gazans to continue to exit and enter via the crossing.
Agreement over the opening of the Rafah crossing is a necessary but insufficient condition for a cease-fire. Hamas is demanding an end to targeted assassinations and weapons fire in the Gaza Strip and in the West Bank, not only against its own people, but also against the other militias, whether of Islamic Jihad or of other street gangs. Without a halt to the assassinations, Hamas representatives emphasized to the Egyptians, the organization cannot guarantee total quiet. Hamas itself will find it difficult to keep silent if Islamic Jihad reacts to hits on its men, because there is a single resistance front: It's all or nothing.
That's it for the introduction. The breach of the Rafah crossing has become the symbol of civil daring and resistance in the face of brutal Israeli policy. It's the same policy which, instead of encouraging public Palestinian resistance against Hamas, gave the organization the paradoxical status of being the vital partner to non-partnership. Anyone seeking to conduct peace talks with the PA of President Mahmoud Abbas needs the acquiescence of Hamas.
It does not matter a whit whether we are talking about a signed treaty with Hamas, open or covert negotiations, or denials that conceal the existence of talks. The necessary result must in any event be an end to the rockets on one hand, and an end to the assassinations in the Gaza Strip on the other hand, as well as an open Rafah border crossing that does not conceal a threat of an uncontrolled invasion by captive Gazans into Egyptian territory.
Now Washington also realizes there is no way around bringing Hamas into the border agreement. Sources in Egypt have said that Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs David Welch is encouraging Egypt to push for a cease-fire with Hamas and that it is obvious from his remarks that Hamas is no longer a pariah; rather, it is an essential partner, without which the calm needed to go forward with the peace process cannot be achieved.
And so, if Suleiman does come to Israel this week and if he obtains Israeli agreement for a temporary lull - which once again seems a distant prospect - and if the Rafah crossing is reopened, the next stage will arrive: negotiations between the PA and Hamas toward the establishment of a unified system of control. Abbas still insists that Hamas is not a partner as long as it refuses to restore the situation in the Strip to its former status and to adopt the resolutions taken by previous Palestinian governments including recognition of Israel and resumption of peace talks. If Hamas accepts Abbas' demands, Abbas will be willing to declare new elections and to accept the results. What if Hamas wins again, or at the least garners sufficient votes that will require Fatah to include it in the government? Would Israel declare in that situation, too, that it will not talk with the Palestinian government? Will the lesson from Israel's boycott of the past two years be forgotten?
On the other hand, the same result could be achieved with a minor change in the order. Israel could propose that the PA and Hamas cooperate in creating a unity government as a condition for an Israeli cease-fire and the opening of the Rafah border. Israel could continue its fruitless peace talks with Abbas, but more importantly, it would be dealing with a single Palestinian authority via which life in the territories could be conducted until the End of Days vision is realized. The other option is to conduct two-headed talks: one with Hamas, over the important issues such as security, and the second with the PA - over nothing.
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