15 FEBRUARY 2009


After every active party in the region recognized that Egypt's mediation was the only one with a realistic outcome, Cairo moved quickly to seal a defacto deal between Hamas and Israel over Gaza by mid-February. The first indication of positive development was the arrival from Gaza on February 11 of the most senior Hamas leader, Mahmud Zahar. That meant that both the political and military wings were initially on board. Another indication was a regular shuttle from Jerusalem by a senior Israeli official. A third indication was a discreet gathering between Fatah and Hamas delegations in Cairo under the chairmanship of Egypt's main expert on Palestinian issues: Intelligence Chief General Omar Suleiman.

To ensure support by key powers abroad, President Mubarak made a quick visit to President Gul in Istanbul, to President Sarkozy in Paris on February 12, and the following day the dynamic Foreign Minister, its former chief delegate to the U.N., Ahmed Abul Ghait, was visiting Secretary of State Clinton in Washington. A meeting on the reconstruction of Gaza was agreed for Monday, 2 March. Secretary Clinton is expected to participate upon her return from her maiden East Asia tour. France is a Permanent member of the Security Council and its current President perceives himself as a key political broker in the region. Turkey is a current Council member and has excellent connections with both conflicting Palestinian factions. The President of Syria, which hosts the political leadership of Hamas, received an unusual guest; after a three year boycoot, the Saudi King sent his chief of "Intelligence," Prince Migrin, with a special message no doubt in consultation with Cairo.

Details of the arrangements were kept confidential to avoid having public arguments via media networks. But it is understood that a ceasefire will be a first step followed by the opening of passages, like that of Rafah. While Egypt clearly controls its side of those passages, supervision on the other side will have to be handled first among the Palestinians themselves (that is between Hamas that controls Gaza and the Palestinian Authority in Ramallah, dominated by Fatah). Hence the meeting in Cairo to explore options on what happens in the Strip and possibly a reconciliation that would move the Palestinians to a less fragmented, more unified position. There is also the Israeli position, as the IDF occupies that area beyond Rafah. With every measure accomplished, steps would be taken to move to the next stage.

An agreement was expected to be announced the beginning of the 16 February week. It included a ceasefire initially for 18 months, accompanied by opening 80% of the closed passages and further peace-building measures. Last minute counterproposals, however, delayed that hopeful prospect. A demand to release Israeli kindapped soldier Shalitt was countered by a demand to release Palestinian prisoners, notably Marwan Barghouty of Fate, three from Hamas, and a PLFP leader. While negotiations continue, additional efforts are being made to avoid any action that would derail the whole process. Egypt seems keen to ensure that everyone is fully on board before unfolding its general plan and its own positive role.

It is a pity that the U.N. Secretary General, who started rightly by visiting Cairo on the first leg of his visit to the region -- and Gaza -- did not proceed to play a continued role which would have given him personally and the U.N. much needed credit.