Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Denial Along the Nile

There is more than a little poetic license in that title. According to the latest Al Jazeera English report, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak was instrumental in formulating a truce plan for Gaza; but the work appears to have been done in Sharm el-Sheikh (at the tip of the Sinai Peninsula), rather than on the banks of the Nile (in Cairo or elsewhere). Since Al Jazeera is the only news agency with reporters officially allowed in the Gaza Strip, they tend to be one of the better sources for tracking this story (although the BBC can be good at getting to a story, even if they have to do it sub rosa). However, when we combine Al Jazeera's own resources with what they gather through their wire services, we have to wonder just how realistic the plan for truce being reported is. Consider, for example, how the report is introduced:

Nicolas Sarkozy, France's president, has said that Israel and the Palestinian Authority have accepted a Franco-Egyptian truce plan for Gaza.

A statement from Sarkozy's office on Wednesday said: "The president is delighted by the acceptance by Israel and the Palestinian Authority of the Franco-Egyptian plan presented last night in Sharm el-Sheikh by [Egyptian] president [Hosni] Mubarak."

While Sarkozy deserves credit for trying to fill the diplomatic vacuum created by a combination of negligence and bad faith on the part of the Bush Administration, his track record of self-promotion obliges us to question his statement; and it does not take much questioning to trip over the noun "acceptance." Certainly the only Israeli source Al Jazeera was able to turn up was far from ready to commit to that noun:

Israel's ambassador to the UN said on Tuesday that the Israelis were taking the ceasefire proposal "very seriously".

"I am sure that it will be considered and you will find out whether it was accepted," Gabriela Shalev told reporters in New York. "But we take it very, very seriously."

At the same time, Israel's security cabinet is meeting to discuss an escalation to a "third phase" of the war on Gaza, which would see ground combat from street-to-street, according to two senior Israeli political sources.

This strikes me as far more suspicious than Mr. Dooley's admonition to "Trust everybody, but cut the cards."

Meanwhile, on the Palestinian side the best reactions Al Jazeera reported came from two key sources. Here is their quote from Mohammed al-Masri, a strategic analyst at Jordan University's Centre for Strategic Studies:

It [the truce plan] is not talking about Hamas as a partner, who were elected to govern the Palestinian people. It is not talking about recognising Hamas.

The other is Azzam Tamimi, author of Hamas: The Unwritten Chapters, who accused Egypt of having been "a conspirator with Israel." Tamimi's quote argues that acceptability will require a bigger initiative:

Egypt, geographically, is indispenable, but we need to have Turkey and Qatar in this initiative, for example.

Qatar has spoken out about the situation in a way that the Arab people understand and has had success in mediating Lebanon's crisis. Turkey is a Nato member, close to Europe and willing to convey the Palestinian perspective.

He also echoes al-Masri on excluding Hamas from the discussion of any truce proposal:

Tamimi said the problem with the Egyptian initiative is that it treats Hamas "as if it is not a player".

"But it is the player," he said. "It is fighting Israel and so cannot be ignored as part of the process."

This context makes the Hamas side of the story perfectly understandable:

Speaking to Al Jazeera from Beirut, Osama Hamdan, a senior Hamas official, said: "The [Hamas] movement is now discussing its stance to the Egyptian initiative, keeping in mind that there are, in principle, a number of reservations on this initiative.

"Israel has not accepted the French-Egyptian initiative yet. They said they are looking positively to this initiative, that does not mean they have accepted it.

"As for the Palestinian Authority, they could accept it but everyone knows that who is on the ground - and can decide 'yes or no' - is the resistance, that means Hamas and the resistance movement. So there is no use in them saying yes or no.

"It is Israel who started the war, not Hamas. When Israel decides to let humanitarian aid into Gaza, it is not a big deal. They have to do that. They are doing this because they are now realising the international anger over the UN school bombing".

This leaves us with the conclusion that the only real beneficiaries of the Sharm el-Sheikh meeting appear to be the only participants, Mubarak and Sarkozy, by promoting their reputations for reasonable deliberation in times of diplomatic crisis. Unfortunately, the only reputation that has emerged is one for the same sort of denial that we have associated with the Bush Administration and is now being adopted by Tzipi Livni, who is presumably speaking for the Israeli government. Meanwhile, the population of the Gaza Strip continues to be punished for nothing more than their exercising their right to choose their leaders through a democratic electoral process.

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