|Southwest Asia News Digest
An Intense Weekend of Mideast Diplomacy
Feb. 15 (EIRNS)Representatives of Hamas and Fatah have met in Cairo for the first time in over two years, in talks aimed at establishing a unity government over the entire Palestinian Authority (PA) territory. The meeting, over the Feb. 14-15 weekend, sponsored by the Egyptian government, was reported extensively in Al-Manar, the Lebanese satellite TV station affiliated with Hezbollah. According to this account, former Fatah PA Prime Minister Ahmed Qurei and top Fatah negotiator Nabil Sha'ath met with the deputy head of the Hamas political bureau, Mousa Abu Marzouk, and Mahmoud Zahar, the Hamas leader in Gaza. At the meeting, both parties agreed to further talks, including a reconciliation conference on Feb. 22, to be hosted by the Egyptian government. A PA spokesman in Ramallah directly linked the start of the reunification talks with the departure of the Bush Administration, bluntly saying, "The departure of the Bush Administration has paved the way for Palestinian national reconciliation. In the past, Bush and Rice were totally opposed to talks between Fatah and Hamas."
According to both Hamas and Fatah sources, the Egyptian government has presented a reconciliation plan, calling for a unity government, the release of all internal political prisoners, held by both Fatah and Hamas, parliamentary and presidential elections, and a restructuring of the Palestinian security forces. The Al-Manar story concluded with the following: "According to the sources, the two parties have already reached an agreement in principle to form a joint government that would serve for two years. The proposed government, which would be headed by current PA Prime Minister Salaam Fayad and would include several Hamas ministers, would be entrusted with preparing for new elections and solving all problems between the two sides ahead of the vote."
The Fatah-Hamas talks were not the only weekend diplomacy aimed at the Palestinian crisis. According to Ynet, the Israeli security cabinet was meeting on Feb. 15, to consider a final proposal for a prisoner exchange and a ceasefire with Hamas. The report of a package deal between Hamas and Israel, first reported on Feb. 15, in the London-based Al-Sharq Al-Awsat Arabic-language daily, reportedly would involve the freeing of Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, in exchange for hundreds of Palestinian political prisoners in Israeli jails, including Hamas members of the Palestinian National Assembly, and Marwan Barghouti, one of the principal authors of the 2006 Prisoners Declaration, which forms the basis for a reunified Palestinian government.
U.S. intelligence sources have confirmed that the talks, aimed at freeing Shalit, have been ongoing for weeks, and are near a breakthrough point, and that Israel is under intense pressure from the Obama Administration, to reopen the Gaza crossings, to allow a free flow of emergency food and reconstruction materials.
Also over the weekend, in Damascus, Prince Muqran bin Abdul Aziz, the head of Saudi intelligence, held talks with Syrian President Bashar Assad, in which he delivered a message from King Abdullah. The meeting seemed to indicate a thaw in Saudi-Syrian relations, which have been in a state of deep freeze since the murder of Rafiq Hariri. Al-Manar TV coverage of the meeting stressed improved bilateral relations, and a push for a unified Arab position in the wake of the Israeli invasion of Gaza.
Clinton, Mitchell, Jones to Southwest Asia
Feb. 13 (EIRNS)Despite the fact that a new Israeli government has yet to be formed, a considerable amount of diplomacy is planned for the coming weeks. First, Egyptian Foreign Minister Aboul Gheit met with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, after which he announced that Clinton would attend the Gaza reconstruction conference in Cairo on March 2. She will then travel to Israel and the Palestinian National Authority.
U.S. National Security Advisor Gen. Jim Jones is to arrive in Israel on Feb. 24, and Special Middle East Envoy George Mitchell will be again in the region in the last week of February.
At a press conference following his meeting with Clinton, Gheit expressed optimism about the Obama Administration's perspective for reviving the peace process: "They understand very well this question, and they know that they will have to exert pressure on two sides to achieve the objective of peace." He added that, "They say they understand the problem of settlement activity, and that it must come to an end." According to the report in Ynet.com, he concluded, "Let's rebuild and reconstruct Gaza through the conference ... and then let's see what George Mitchell, as well as Hillary Clinton, as well as the Administration will do in relation to the peace process."
Meanwhile, the European Union has decided to freeze the upgrade in relations with Israel until the new Israeli government is formed, and demonstrates its commitment to renewing the peace process. The Czech Republic, which holds the European Union presidency, went so far as to cancel a summit between the Israeli Prime Minister and EU leaders which was supposed to take place in June.
On Feb. 15-16, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov was in Israel, where he met President Shimon Peres, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, and opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu. He will also travel to the Palestinian Authority, Egypt, Oman, and Bahrain. At the top of the agenda is Russia's year-old proposal to host a Middle East conference as a follow-up to the Annapolis conference of 2007. Israel is said to support the Russian proposal, if only to prevent France from hosting it. According to the Jerusalem Post, Israeli diplomatic sources fear that if France holds the conference, French President Nicolas Sarkozy will try to upgrade the status of Syrian President Assad.
Mitchell Reports on Humanitarian Disaster in Gaza
Feb. 15 (EIRNS)According to sources close to the Obama Administration, Middle East special envoy George Mitchell focussed much of his initial report-back to the President on the humanitarian disaster in Gaza in the aftermath of the Israeli invasion. Mitchell reportedly told the President and key Cabinet officials that the Israelis must be forced to reopen the Gaza crossings, to allow food and reconstruction material to enter. Reportedly, Mitchell was blunt in his assessment of the humanitarian disaster, and gave no room for compromise, because "people are starving in Gaza."
The sources reported that Mitchell also cautioned against the United States being implicated in some of the heavy-handed security measures being employed by the U.S.-trained Palestinian Authority security services in the West Bank, which have jailed many suspected Hamas members and other militants, and which suppressed demonstrations in support of the Palestinians in Gaza, during the Israeli invasion. Lt. Gen. Keith Dayton is the top U.S. official, assigned to work with the Palestinian Authority, in training and arming their security services.
Palestinian Ministers Want Israel Probed
Feb. 14 (EIRNS)The Palestinian National Authority (PNA) is determined to bring charges of war crimes against Israel for its war conducted against the Palestinians from 2002, up through the recent war in the Gaza Strip. PNA Foreign Minister Riad al-Malki and Justice Minister Ali Kashan have submitted evidence of war crimes to the chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Court, Luis Moreno-Ocampo, along with documents proving that Palestine is a legal state, and therefore has the right to request such a probe into war crimes conducted by Israel in the Gaza war.
"Today we came to deliver a set of documents that shows that Palestine as a state ... has the ability to present a case to the court and to ask for an investigation into crimes committed by the Israeli army," Kashan said. "We will deliver more information about war crimes and crimes against humanity, not only in Gaza during the last Israeli attack, but also from 2002 until this moment," he added. The documents included evidence of war crimes, said Kashan.
Malki said documents were provided that show Palestine was recognized as a state by 67 countries, and had bilateral agreements with states in Ibero-America, Asia, Africa, and Europe. "Our President has been visiting many European countries recentlyFrance, Italy, Poland, and was received as the President of Palestine. His visits were considered to be state visits," he said. Palestine is also a full member of the Arab League, the Organization of the Islamic Conference, and the Non-Aligned Movement, the minister said.
"What we seek here is justice," Malki said. "We want to create a precedent."