January 12, 2009

Gaza: Why is Tony Blair so optimistic?

Tony BlairI hope Tony Blair knows something I don't.

According to Middle East envoy Tony Blair, "the elements of an agreement for the immediate cease-fire are there." The former British prime minister hopes to see a cease fire in the coming days.

Blair is in Cairo in support of an Egyptian-French plan to end the violence in the neighboring Gaza Strip. That plan calls for an immediate cessation of hostilities on both sides and a commitment that Hamas and Israel will talk to each other about a lasting arrangement.

Mr. Blair is confident, French President Nicholas Sarkozy is confident, and Egyptian President Husni Mubarak is confident. Unfortunately, none of these people speak for the combatants. Neither Hamas nor Israel has stated they are in agreement with the proposal.

Israel has said will not talk to Hamas since it considers it a terrorist organization. For its part, Hamas has stated it will not agree to any ceasefire until Israel withdraws from the Gaza Strip. Israel will not withdraw until they are sure there will be no more rocket attacks on southern Israel. As I have said before - Catch 22.

There is so much uncertainty with this proposal that I am at a loss as to why Tony Blair is so optimistic. As I said, the parties will not talk to each other. All the meetings in Cairo have been the Israelis with Egyptian general intelligence chief 'Umar Sulayman. Sulayman is a capable interlocutor with years of experience - he is the retired director of military intelligence. Even he cannot seem to find common ground between the two parties.

The Israelis left Cairo with no progress, followed by Hamas leaders departing to meet with the Hamas political leadership in Damascus. Later, Hamas political leader Khalid Mish'al rejected the plan.

One of the key sticking points is control of the border crossings and the requisite presence of international monitors to prevent rearming of Hamas. Those observers would probably be a United Nations force led by the Turks. That presence would have to operate in Gaza and Egypt, since Israel has refused to allow another UN force into Israel (with good reason).

Hamas has rejected international observers in Gaza - that would prevent them from rearming, which is, of course, the purpose of the force. One proposal that would turn the Hamas-run border crossings over to Fatah, the rival Palestinian party that Hamas forcibly expelled from The Gaza Strip in 2007, is a non-starter.

Given what is being reported from Cairo, Damascus, Tel Aviv and Gaza, I hope Tony Blair knows something I don't. Prospects for a ceasfire in the coming days appear dim.