September 2009 will apparently see a major shake-up in the Middle East. If everything will go according to plan, it will be a month where almost all the players active in this arena will be reshuffling the deck and sitting at the table in order to formulate a simultaneous “all-inclusive” process” – ranging from the release of Gilad Shalit to the handling of the Iranian nuclear program.
The Obama Administration is indeed supposed to stimulate the process, yet the major roles are reserved for the regional players. These are supposed, in line with advance coordination with Washington, to show initiative and creativity on separate channels – all these developments coming together should break the dead-end currently in place in the Middle East.
The phase of coordinating plans and expectations is being carried out at this time, and we are already seeing significant progress. The official launch will take place ahead of, during, and after the United Nations General Assembly, scheduled for September 23rd. The process will mostly start in three (and a half) channels.
The Gaza frontAt this time, Egypt, Israel, and the German mediator are focusing on breaking the deadlock in the Gilad Shalit affair. If and when the prisoner swap takes place, the door will be opened for a more comprehensive agreement that will include the following:
The opening of the crossings between Israel and the Strip, the opening of the Rafah Crossing between Gaza and Egypt, a “lull” (that is, a long-term ceasefire) in the terrorist and military activity in the area, Gaza’s rehabilitation with international monitoring and assistance, and reconciliation between Hamas and Fata.
Such “mega-deal,” which Cairo has been attempting to promote for a while now, may see everyone benefit, and mostly Hamas, which is very interested in rehabilitating the Strip and is concerned about the distress of its residents which may grow worse in the coming winter.
Israel will gain quiet and alleviation of the international pressure exerted on it in a bid to lift the siege. Should Egypt secure intra-Palestinian reconciliation, we will see general elections in January 2010 in both Gaza and the West Bank; after such elections it will become clear, for better or for worse, which is the legitimate representative of the Palestinian people.
However, we must keep one thing in mind: The pre-condition for all of the above is a successful conclusion to the efforts to secure Gilad Shalit’s release. On this front there is room for cautious optimism, among other reasons because foreign countries – both European and Arab – are willing to take in some of the Palestinian prisoners to be released by Israel.
Indeed, as is the custom in these kinds of deals, “it ain’t over till it’s over.” However, Arab reports have not discounted the possibility that a swap may take place during the Ramadan, or even before the Jewish New Year.