Gaza diplomacy starts to bear fruit

by Paul Reynolds
World affairs correspondent BBC News website

An effective diplomatic front has finally been opened in the Gaza conflict, 
raising hopes that a ceasefire might be near.

If all goes well, it is possible that a deal might be in place by the time 
Barack Obama is sworn is as US president on Tuesday.

But for that to happen, principles have to turned into practicalities.

In the meantime the Israeli attacks continue, as would be expected, as Israel 
does not want to show any signs of weakness until a new agreement is finalised.

Taking time

Diplomacy has taken its time. It has had to wait until the Israelis were in a 
position to decide that their assault on Gaza had been effective in reducing 
Hamas to the point where it wanted to negotiate.

That moment appeared to come closer on Wednesday with a statement by a Hamas 
spokesman in Cairo Salah al-Bardawi that a plan put forward by the Egyptians 
was acceptable "in its broad outlines".

This was followed by the despatch to Egypt on Thursday of Israel's chief 
negotiator over Gaza, a veteran operative at the defence ministry, Amos Gilad.

After his meeting with Egypt's intelligence chief, Omar Suleiman, Gilad will 
return home for further discussions with his political masters. Further shuttle 
visits are possible before the final details are agreed.

Mark Regev, the Israeli prime minister's spokesman opened up the prospect of a 
ceasefire when he declared that Amos Gilad would discuss the "parameters of the 
endgame" with Egypt.

The Egyptians are central to the ceasefire effort. With the help of the British 
and French, they got a ceasefire resolution through the Security Council, which 
was useful, even though the United States abstained. It provided a basis for 
taking detailed talks further.

The resolution is also currently being pressed by the UN Secretary General Ban 
Ki-moon, who is in the region.

However, the key talks are in Cairo and central to them is Omar Suleiman, who 
was instrumental in putting together the original ceasefire last June and is 
now trying to stitch it back together.

The Egyptian plan is reported to cover the main elements of what both sides 
want. Hamas would have to agree not to fire any more rockets into Israel and, 
crucially from the Israeli point of view, practical steps would have to be 
taken along the Egyptian border with Gaza to stop the smuggling of weapons 
through tunnels.

The main Hamas demands are for the removal of Israeli forces plus the opening 
of the border crossings.

Israeli officials say they sense that many governments agree that the smuggling 
should stop and that one or two have offered ideas about how this might be done 
and what forces would monitor it.

The sequence of events is a key element of the negotiation.

# When, for example, would the ceasefire come into effect and when would 
Israelis forces leave?

# Would the agreement be implemented in stages?

# What about the mechanisms for stopping the tunnelling and opening the borders?

Egypt has proposed that its border with Gaza be re-opened under the conditions 
agreed in 2005 with the Palestinian Authority which is controlled by Fatah, 
Hamas' rival, which could prove tricky.

Who won?

And then the question will be asked: Who won? Israel's only clearly-stated 
objective was to stop the rocket attacks. If it achieves that, it can claim 
some success. If there was an agenda to destroy Hamas, it was not stated (as it 
was over Hezbollah in Lebanon), so, on that point, the Israeli government will 
avoid the results being compared to the objective.

As for Hamas, no doubt it will declare victory in any case. But the credibility 
of that claim will become apparent only in a few months time and depends on 
whether it is able to re-arm.
Story from BBC NEWS:

Published: 2009/01/15 11:38:26 GMT


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