Talks With Hamas / One Stage or Many?

Hamas is becoming a strategic player among Arab countries, and is influencing Israel-Egypt ties.

If Jimmy Carter manages to help get Hamas to release kidnapped soldier Gilad Shalit, then the former president, who during his term in office was unable to get Iran to release 52 American hostages, will be able to chalk up the release of one Israeli hostage, at least.

Carter proposed that Hamas declare a unilateral cease-fire for a week or two, make some sort of "humanitarian gesture," sign an agreement to open the Rafah crossing, and have its representatives meet with Industry, Trade and Employment Minister Eli Yishai. Israel would release 400 Palestinian prisoners in exchange for Shalit.

Hamas has "for now" rejected the proposal to meet with Yishai. Most of its leaders also insist that the deal be more all-inclusive and simultaneous: They want the cease-fire to extend to both the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, and they want the Palestinian prisoners to be released when the crossings between Gaza and Egypt are opened.

Hamas leaders disagreed yesterday over the implementation of such an arrangement. Khaled Meshal, who is based in Damascus, and Mahmoud al-Zahar, in Gaza, want a comprehensive deal to show a sorely needed political achievement. However, the prime minister in the Gaza Strip, Ismail Haniyeh of Hamas, believes the issue of the crossings can be solved separately. His aides say he will agree to a cease-fire independent of the other demands, as long as it is bilateral.

Hamas is becoming a strategic player among Arab countries, and is influencing Israel-Egypt ties. This is because Cairo wants a quick solution to the crossings so that its border with Gaza is not breached again. If this were to happen, it would make Egypt responsible for the Palestinians in the Strip.

But the crossings will not open without Hamas consent. Hamas is willing to accept the 2005 crossings agreement, on the condition that the authority of the Palestinian Authority police (who answer to Ramallah) and the European Union observers there is limited. Egypt is willing to supervise the crossings, but Israel does not trust it to prevent wanted men from passing through.

The atmosphere between Hamas and Egypt further heated up yesterday when Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Abdul Gheit said that a Palestinian unity government including Hamas might impair the peace process. Hamas demanded Gheit retract the statement, saying it harmed efforts at internal Palestinian reconciliation, to which Egypt is a party.