A series of developments this week suggested that the stage may be getting set for renewed Palestinian-Israeli peace talks even as Palestinians prepared for new elections and Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon worked to form a new coalition government.
Fueling the speculation was Egypt’s official Middle East News Agency, which reported Tuesday that an “agreement in principle” had been hammered out “regarding a comprehensive settlement to the Israeli-Palestinian struggle.” It said the two parties, as well as Egypt, the U.S. and European nations had been involved in the talks. The report was quickly downplayed by all concerned.
This and other positive developments — including Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak saying Sharon was the Palestinians’ best chance for peace, the release Sunday of Israeli Druze Azzam Azzam after eight years in an Egyptian prison on espionage charges, and reports that Mubarak would soon return Egypt’s ambassador to Israel — caused an Israeli correspondent to question whether it was all a mirage or if a new Middle East was emerging.
Writing in the newspaper Haaretz, Bradley Burston said that “after years of glacial diplomacy,” the Egyptian news report “stood out as a landmark.” And he said attempts by Israeli and Palestinian sources to downplay the report “were intriguingly anemic.”
Arye Mekel, Israel’s consul general in New York, called the report “premature.” He said he did not believe anything concrete would occur until after the Jan. 9 election a new president of the Palestinian Authority.
“The election will give the leader credibility and name recognition, and once there is a leader we can talk,” he said. “But we can’t really negotiate unless there is an end to terror. … We think that they do mean well, but we hope to see that they are actually taking steps.”
Mahmoud Abbas, who succeeded Yasir Arafat as leader of the PLO following Arafat’s death Nov. 11, is seen as the favorite to win the presidential election. Although one-time Fatah activist Marwan Barghouti is also a candidate, the imprisoned terrorist is reported to be considering withdrawing from the race, again. Mekel said Barghouti lacked popular support despite some polls showing him deadlocked with Abbas, and Barghouti’s hope that his candidacy would garner support for his release from prison was “futile,” according to the Israeli diplomat.
It was a week that also saw Syrian President Bashar Assad meet in Damascus with Palestinian leaders — the first such meeting since the Palestinians signed the Oslo peace accords with Israel in 1993. Not only was Assad reaching out to the Palestinians, but he was also holding out his hand to Israel to resume peace talks unconditionally.
Although Deputy Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert dismissed the move, telling The Jewish Week that Assad first needed to stop harboring terrorists in Damascus and supporting them on Israel’s northern border, Assad’s overture was seen as a potentially hopeful sign.
Richard Murphy, a former U.S. ambassador to Syria, said he hoped Israel would reconsider its rebuff of Assad.
“Syria wants everybody to remember how significant it can be and this call for attention — to say we are ready for negotiations — would be quickly exposed if it was a ploy,” Murphy said. “I’m for talking whenever it is possible, and it’s too bad that neither Israel nor Washington want to encourage the Syrians to put up or shut up.”
Mubarak, the Egyptian leader, was in Kuwait this week reportedly seeking to convince its leaders to use their close ties with Syria to persuade Assad to demonstrate more decisively his interest in peace talks with Israel. In addition, according to Haaretz, Mubarak is seeking Kuwait’s help in developing diplomatic ties between the Gulf states and Israel.
Some Israeli analysts suggested that Mubarak’s overtures were designed to placate internal dissension over the release of Azzam Azzam, which many believed was unwarranted. It was suggested that Mubarak wants to demonstrate that progress is being made on the Israeli-Palestinian track, and that his moves are not foolhardy.
A Peace Index poll released Tuesday found Israelis upbeat about chances of peace with Palestinians, with 70 percent saying they were more optimistic following the death of Arafat. Fully 86 percent said they believed Arafat harmed the peace process. And among Sharon’s Likud Party, 75 percent expressed support for peace talks compared with 60 percent in recent months.
The poll found also that Sharon was the clear choice of Israelis to advance the peace process, with no one even close behind. Among Likud voters, Sharon was the favorite among 53 percent of those polled, followed by Benjamin Netanyahu with the support of just 18 percent.
That support, coupled with the support of 40 Likud mayors and Netanyahu himself, was seen as all but certain to cause the Likud Central Committee to reverse itself late this week and allow Sharon to form a new government with the Labor Party, as well as with Shas and United Torah Judaism.
Sharon’s government fell apart in recent weeks, first over his decision to withdraw settlers and troops from the Gaza Strip and four northern Israeli settlements, and last week over his decision to bring UTJ into his coalition with the promise of $68 million in aid to its religious and educational institutions. The latter move infuriated the centrist Shinui Party, which wants to see the influence of the religious establishment curtailed, and Sharon fired its ministers after the party’s Knesset members voted against his $60 billion state budget.
Labor is expected to join the coalition in coming weeks, along with UTJ and Shas, an Orthodox party Sharon reportedly would like in his coalition in order to appease hard-line Likud members opposed to Labor.
Such a new government spells “tough times for pluralism, and we are paying the price,” according to Rabbi Ehud Bandel, president of the Israel’s Masorti (Conservative) movement.
“This has been kind of an uphill battle and now we are back to square one,” he said in a phone interview during a visit to Los Angeles.
“We had allies in the government before, people with whom we could talk,” Rabbi Bandel said, referring to members of the Shinui Party. “But at the moment, there is a feeling that there is no one to talk to in the government.”
Reflecting on Shinui’s record since it joined Sharon’s coalition government in February 2003, Rabbi Bandel said its achievements were “quite minimal.”
“Besides dismantling the Ministry of Religious Affairs, it is hard to talk of any achievements,” he said. “Perhaps they will be more effective as a militant opposition in keeping the issues of religion and state on the agenda. While in the coalition, they had to make compromises and concessions. Now they are free to do what they were elected to be — a militant opposition that tries to change the status quo and bring freedom of religion to Israel.”
Rabbi Bandel said the most he can hope for now is that “things don’t deteriorate. … Certainly there will not be any progress” on such issues as Israeli government recognition of marriages performed by Reform and Conservative rabbis in Israel.
The estimated 800 couples married in Israel by these rabbis each year must leave the country and be married in a civil ceremony in order for their union to be recognized by the state of Israel, the rabbi noted.