Egypt’s Cease-fire Proposal Gains Arabs’ Backing

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Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah al-Sissi, right, discussing the Gaza-Israel conflict with Tony Blair, Quartet rep to the Middle East, on July 12. Credit: Reuters

International diplomatic efforts to reach a cease-fire in Gaza have not yet achieved a breakthrough, but over the weekend there were signs of some progress. Israeli, Palestinians and American officials noted that a critical mass of international and Arab support was forming around considering the Egyptian initiative the only viable one.

Over the weekend, marathon phone discussions continued between the U.S., Egypt, the Palestinians and Israel, as well as with the UN Secretary General, Russia and the larger European Union members. U.S. President Obama spoke with Prime Minister Netanyahu on Friday, shortly after the cabinet discussed the expansion of ground operations.

During their conversation and at a later press conference, Obama stressed that the U.S. supports Israel’s right to defend itself. He related that in the middle of the conversation sirens could be heard in Tel Aviv due to rocket fire from Gaza. However, he noted that the U.S. is worried about further escalation and about casualties among non-combatants.

Obama told Netanyahu he is interested in assisting the attainment of a cease-fire agreement and could send Secretary of State John Kerry to the region if that would help achieve quiet. Kerry spoke with Netanyahu yesterday, discussing diplomatic moves needed to achieve a cease-fire. Kerry may arrive in Cairo tomorrow to further push the Egyptian initiative. Later in the week he may come to Israel as well.

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon will also arrive in Cairo tomorrow in support of Egyptian efforts. He will come to Israel on Tuesday. On Friday, French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius arrived in Cairo to discuss the cease-fire. He came to Israel on Saturday, meeting Netanyahu and Foreign Minister Lieberman.

Two parallel tracks characterize the diplomatic maneuvering. The first, led by Egypt, calls for an immediate cease-fire, after which details will be worked out. These would include border crossings, salary payments and the easing of fishing limitations on Gaza fishermen. A keystone of Egyptian efforts is the return of the Palestinian Authority to Gaza, for the first time since the 2007 takeover by Hamas. A senior Palestinian official said that Egypt told Hamas that any opening of the Rafah crossing would entail the return of Abu Mazen’s presidential guard there, with no Hamas men present.

Israel and the Authority accepted this proposal, but Hamas rejected it.

The second track is a Qatari initiative, supported by Turkey. It includes the acceptance of multiple demands made by Hamas, such as a lifting of the naval blockade of Gaza, the construction of a harbor and an airport. A key part of this proposal was that Hamas retain control of Gaza and official recognition of its sovereignty over the Strip. Senior Hamas officials, especially political bureau chief Khaled Meshal, adopted this proposal with open arms, refusing to negotiate the terms of the Egyptian proposal.

Israel, Egypt and the Palestinian Authority asked the U.S. last week to convey to Qatar and Turkey that they must stop proceeding along a second track. “We told the Americans that we have to stay focused and let Egypt lead,” said a senior Israeli source. “We wanted to prevent Hamas getting rewarded for a war it initiated.”

The Americans agreed and Kerry clarified that if Turkey and Qatar wished to be involved they would have to fall in line with Egypt. “We have no quarrel with Israel – we told Qatar that we expect them to support Egypt,” said an American official.

Palestinian president Abbas held marathon sessions in Cairo on Thursday, trying to obtain a cease-fire. He met with the deputy head of Hamas’s political bureau Mousa Abu Marzouk and with the deputy head of Islamic Jihad Ziad Nakhle, urging them to accept the Egyptian proposal.

On Friday Abbas went to Turkey to meet Prime Minister Erdogan and President Gul, urging them to back the Egyptian proposal. He is also going to Bahrain and Qatar, where he will try to get its leader to pressure Meshal to accept the Egyptian deal. Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates are backing his efforts.

American and Israeli officials sense that the message is getting through. Abu Marzouk stated that the Egyptian proposal is the most significant, although Meshal still wants Qatari involvement.

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