February 25, 2009

The Cairo talks - it just gets better and better...

Gaza City skyline Gaza City skyline (my photo)

The Egyptian-mediated talks in Cairo aimed at a long-term truce between Hamas and Israel following the 34-day conflict in December 2008 and January 2009 have been an abject failure.

Hamas continues to fire rockets into southern Israel, refuses to stop importing weapons in the Gaza Strip, demands that Israel open its Gaza border crossings and wants the release hundreds of Palestinian prisoners from Israeli jails in return for the repatriation of captured Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit.

Israel refuses to talk directly to Hamas and uses the Egyptian General Intelligence Directorate as its interlocutor. Each Hamas rocket launch is met with an Israeli air strike on the smuggling tunnels on the Gaza-Egyptian border or known Hamas facilities in Gaza. Likud Party leader and former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is attempting to form a new coalition government. Centrist Kadima and liberal Labor have thus far refused to join Likud in a government, creating the real possibility of a far-right coalition. That government will pull out of the talks at the very least, and possibly move militarily to destroy Hamas.

In addition to Israel, Egypt and Hamas, participants in the talks thus far have included special envoy Tony Blair, American envoy George Mitchell, French President Nicholas Sarkozy and Palestinian President Mahmud 'Abbas. To make the prospects of progress in the stalled talks even dimmer, the Palestinians have invited representatives of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) and Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) to join the talks. Fighters from both groups fought alongside Hamas in the Gaza Strip during the conflict with Israel.

Bringing in these radical groups almost guarantees the failure of the talks. Israel will not deal with any of the groups, and the three groups are all opposed to the existence of Israel as a state. The PFLP wants to establish a secular Palestinian state in what is now Israel, the PIJ wants an Islamic state in that area, and Hamas wants a wider Islamic caliphate across the Middle East and North Africa.

Not only will the talks likely fail, the addition of the radical Palestinians may convince the Israelis to support a hard-liine Likud government with Benjamin Netanyahu as the prime minister. Netahyahu has promised to eliminate Hamas.

Most Israelis I spoke with on my recent trip to the Middle East seem to have resigned themselves to the "no-solution solution." They do not see any promise in talking to the Palestianians and will just continue to isolate them at best, and kill many of them when Israel is attacked, at worst.

I am afraid the talks are going nowhere.