Ron Ben-Yishai

Cairo is the key

Israel needs Egypt to cut Hamas off from Iran; Mubarak to determine lull’s fate

The rush of Israeli politicians to the World Economic Forum in Sharm el-Sheikh was more than a ceremonial move. Barak and Livni, and to some extent Benjamin Netanyahu as well, are currently managing a crucial phase in lull negotiations. However, we are not talking about indirect negotiations with Hamas via Egypt; rather, those are direct talks with Egypt over Cairo’s role in such deal.


According to security assessments formulated in recent days, Israel’s most vital interest is to cut Hamas off from Iran. On this front, the actions to be undertaken by Egypt are vital. For Israel, it doesn’t matter much whether the Rafah Crossing will be opened in one way or another, should Egypt engage in security screening and intelligence activity deep in the Sinai and within Egyptian territory. Such activity would prevent not only large-scale arms smuggling from Iran and Sudan to Hamas – it would also prevent Hamas men from traveling to Iran for training and coming back.


By doing this, Israel is hoping to secure a long-term achievement that would avert the emergence of a full-blown Iranian outpost in Gaza, even if the lull is violated. Israel wouldn’t care, for example, that the Palestinians in Gaza shop in Egypt or go there to seek medical attention. On the contrary, this could alleviate the international pressure exerted on us.


However, Israel demands that Egypt engage in thorough screening efforts and stop all those who travel to Iran, and particularly those who return from it, as well as the rocket launchers, explosives, and anti-aircraft rockets sent to Hamas by Iran, just as it sends them to Hizbullah. If these weapons and people reach the Rafah Crossing or the tunnels, it will be too late, Defense Minister Barak likely told President Mubarak. The Egyptians must deploy an intelligence network in the Sinai and in Egypt as well to prevent these weapons and people from even reaching the Rafah area.


Recently, Egypt proved that it can do it. In the wake of the Philadelphi Route breach, Egypt managed to work effectively within the Sinai in order to prevent the infiltration of armed Hamas men planning to carry out attacks in the Sinai. Now, Israel is demanding that even when it comes to unarmed Hamas men who are traveling to Iran for training, Egypt would prevent them from passing through the Sinai or Egypt, including the airport in Pithat Rafiah.


Israeli officials estimate that Hamas, just like other groups, will not show flexibility on the terms it agreed to as condition to the lull. However, security officials say that what matters is not what Hamas does or demands, but rather, what Egypt does. At this time, the fate of the lull is completely in Egypt’s hands, and in fact, President Mubarak will be determining whether a lull will go into effect or not; he won’t do it through words, but rather, through the actions of his people on the ground.


Phased deal

The second Israeli demand has to do with Gilad Shalit. Defense Minister Barak was expected to demand that the Egyptian president renew mediation efforts on this front, including pressing Hamas to show flexibility on its demands. Cairo is capable of exerting such pressure. It has quite a few levers that can cause Hamas to change the list of prisoners it seeks to release.


What Barak offers is a phased deal. In the first phase, both sides will stop the fighting. Hamas will end its Qassam fire and won’t allow other groups to fire either. It will also refrain from carrying out attacks near or beyond the Gaza fence. In exchange, Israel will end its surgical strikes and ground incursions into the Strip. Once the lull goes into effect, Israel will start gradually easing the Gaza siege. The number of trucks carrying goods and food into the Strip, as well as the number of fuel barrels transferred by Israel to Gaza every day, will grow considerably and gradually should the lull be maintained.


Simultaneously, accelerated negotiations will get underway on a deal to free Gilad Shalit in exchange for Palestinian prisoners. This will not only be done with Egyptian mediation, but rather, with Cairo’s active involvement. Once the talks reach an advanced phase, Israel would agree to open the Rafah Crossing with security measures that both Mahmoud Abbas and Egypt would accept. In the third phase, the Gilad Shalit deal will be carried out, the crossings will be opened, and the Gaza siege will be lifted.


This is the Israeli proposal that has been formulated in recent days, but as noted, for Israel the key lies with vigorous Egyptian activity that would cut Gaza off from the “bosses” in Tehran.


פרסום ראשון: 05.20.08, 00:54
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