Despite the spin from both sides, it is not entirely clear what happened in a one-hour summit meeting on Tuesday between Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.
An Israeli official told journalists who were waiting at the summit site as the meeting was underway that he expected the two leaders would discuss four subjects: (1) the “calm” or “tahdiy’a”; (2) the two-year detention of captured Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit; (3) negotiations with the Palestinians; and (3) negotiations with Syria. “There’s enough on the plate”, he said, “and we always try to do this at least twice a year”:
But, the timing appeared to be anything but routine. The Olmert trip to Egypt was announced only a few days earlier — on Thursday 19 June – the day after confirmation of an anxiously-awaited Egyptian-brokered agreement between Israel and Hamas to a truce, or “tahdiya”, in Gaza.
There are still important clarifications needed on the issues of (1) the release of Palestinian prisoners in exchange for the return of Shalit, and (2) on the opening of border crossings between Gaza and Israel – and, possibly even more important, the Rafah crossing between Gaza and Egypt.
Suleiman Awwad, chief spokesman for Egypt’s President Mubarak, briefs journalists in Sharm as-Sheikh on Tuesday after Olmert-Mubarak summit meeting
Mark Regev, spokesman for Israel’s Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, briefs journalists in Sharm as-Sheikh on Tuesday after Olmert-Mubarak discussions.
Journalists coming from Israel – including the locally-powerful Israeli media, as well as the more distantly significant members of the Foreign Press Association working in Israel – were originally invited to join the trip, flying on Olmert’s plane.
At the last minute, the journalists were separated from the Prime Minister and his team of officials, as a second special flight was added.
For those used to the now near-total Israel-imposed physical and psychological separation and isolation of the Palestinian territory from Israel, it was surprising to hear the captain’s periodic announcements from the cockpit: “We’re overflying northern Jerusalem now, and on the left side is the city of Ramallah”. Then, “We’re now flying down along the Dead Sea. On the right, behind us, is Jerusalem, Kirya Arba and Hebron”. As if Ramallah and Hebron were just another part of the body politic, as normal and as comfortably familiar as Jerusalem and Kirya Arba, a major Jewish settlement in the southern West Bank overlooking Hebron (where Baruch Goldstein, the perpetrator of the February 1994 massacre of Palestinians at dawn prayer in the Ibrahimi Mosque, lived and is buried).
Arriving in the Sharm as-Sheikh terminal, however, there was a quick return to reality. Greeting one journalist from Tel Aviv, who couldn’t seem to quite recall where we had met, this journalist said the meeting had been in the Muqata’a Presidential headquarters in Ramallah (for the most recent Condoleeza Rice press conference). Those who overheard showed reactions of momentary shock. Heads turned suddenly, and body positions were changed.
Israelis – including journalists — are not allowed under penalty of the law and a 5000 shekel fine to enter the West Bank’s “Area A” zones – described as zones of mortal danger. Under the Oslo Accords, “Area A” was supposed to be under the total control of the Palestinian Authority. In fact, “Area A” comprises only the major cities of the West Bank — including Ramallah, for example, as well as Nablus, Jenin, Bethlehem, and so on.
But, the concept of Palestinian “total control” is highly abstract – and has been since the Israeli Defense Forces re-entered, in 2002 at the height of the second Intifada, all areas from which it had previously withdrawn.
And, it has still not withdrawn, despite calls from the international community.
The Israel Defense Forces conducts nightly raids and even sometimes daily raids anyway. And, in these raids, Palestinians are often “detained” (and taken back to Israel to be jailed, in blatant and unchallenged violation of the Geneva Conventions), or sometimes killed, right under the eyes of their families and neighbors – or any passersby, including the generally oblivious tourists (who go mainly, as French President Nicholas Sarkozy did on Tuesday, to Bethlehem).
That Tel Aviv-based journalist, who was at the Palestinian Presidential Compound in the Muqata’a, however, is the bearer American passport – and, more significantly, did not arrive in Ramallah under his own power, or in a taxi, but rather was allowed to join up with the U.S. State Department’s convoy of “traveling press” who accompanied the U.S. Secretary of State on her plane from Washington. So, he actually arrived in “Area A” — in Ramallah, and into the Muqata’a itself — in a heavily-defended convoy protected by all levels of American (and more remotely by Israeli) security.
Many West Bank Palestinians are also holders of American passports, but this does them very little good at any of the internal checkpoints, or even at most ofI the West Bank “border crossings”.
In any case, logistical preparations made by the Israeli Prime Minister’s office for Tuesday’s trip to Sharm as-Sheikh, were relatively brisk and efficient.
But, the information component – at least on the Israeli side – was strangely absent.
It was not entirely clear whether this was just business as usual, or a last-minute political calculation – as if the intention had originally been for a high-profile announcement of progress of some importance, which had suddenly become impossible.
In other words, the lack of information could have been simply due to the very usual sort of tough labor-union-type of Israeli protectionism, in which only the home team (the Israeli media) is favored — despite some very secondary concern about maintaining favorable outside public, at least to the extent possible.
Or, it could have been due to some last-minute second thoughts about the wisdom of allowing the media (particularly the aggressive and locally-powerful Israeli press) too close access to the beleagured Israeli Prime Minister, who was suddenly facing a renewed ultimatum from Defense Minister Ehud Barak that could have resulted in a potential vote of no-confidence in the Knesset, and a fall of Olmert’s government, on Wednesday.
In fact, the Israeli media reported in the main headlines on Wednesday morning, all-night negotiations did achieve a compromise between Barak’s Labor Party and Olmert’s Kadima colleagues to avert action in the Knesset in exchange for Kadima moves to hold party primaries by late September (in other words, well after cross-examination – which Olmert says will exonerate him — of Jewish-American businessman Morris Talansky, a witness whose testimony about Olmert’s periodic requests for periodic large sums of cash had badly damaged the image of the sitting Prime Minister).
A columnist in Haaretz wrote, in an apparently factual (no, not satirical) story published Wednesday morning, that Olmert had personally sent notes “in his own neat handwriting” to Labor Party ministers telling them that “Your fundamental mistake, and first and foremost that of [Ehud] Barak is in assuming, where Barak has always failed, that he could control everything that may happen [emphasis added here]. That is idiocy. The minute the Knesset decides to move up the elections, it is a path of no return. The High Court of Justice will intervene, the Knesset will be in turmoil, and I will be painted as someone who is fighting to save his ass at the expense of the country”…
The new compromise between Barak and Olmert may also have another aspect, which was reported in a separate Haaretz story on Wednesday morning: Barak – who Olmert has pointedly said is in control of the West Bank, and clearly also Gaza as well – ordered all the border crossings into Gaza sealed as a result of the firing of Qassam rockets from Gaza on Tuesday – one of which damaged a home in Sderot. That “projectile” firing from Gaza was reportedly in response to the IDF killing, earlier Tuesday, of two Palestinians during a raid in Nablus.
Barak’s order to re-seal the border crossings will very likely cause immediate grave problems – including the shut-down, again, for lack of fuel, of Gaza’s only power plant –
as the Israeli Defense Ministry’s stated policy has been to keep Gaza on the very edge of the cliff without actually allowing it to fall over.
The Defense Minister’s decision came despite – in fact, in clear defiance of — a statement issued by the Quartet meeting in Berlin on Tuesday, in which the Quartet members (the U.S., European Union, Russian Federation and the United Nations) expressed “continuing support for Egyptian efforts to restore calm to Gaza and southern Israel and welcomed the period of calm that began on June 19. The Quartet urged that the calm be respected in full and expressed the hope that it would endure, and lead to improved security for Palestinians and Israelis alike, and a return to normal civilian life in Gaza. In this respect, the Quartet looked forward to increased humanitarian and commercial flows through the Gaza crossings under the management of the Palestinian Authority, consistent with the November 2005 Agreement on Movement and Access, and welcomed the European Union’s offer to resume its monitoring mission at the Rafah crossing point. The Quartet expressed its strong support for the steady and sufficient supplies of fuel to Gaza and for the immediate resumption of stalled UN and other donor projects there. It further tasked the Quartet Representative to develop and promote implementation of measures, in coordination with Israel and the Palestinian Authority, to improve conditions in Gaza, as a matter of urgency”.
Olmert – upon his return from Sharm as-Sheikh on Tuesday afternoon – immediately called the Palestinian fire a “blatant violation of the cease-fire on the part of Palestinian groups in the Strip”.
Hamas had originally tried to position itself as the chief defender of Palestinians by demanding that the cease-fire be applicable also to the West Bank. But this was refused,
and the agreement does not apply to the West Bank. A concession was made by Hamas to get the deal. It was, however, immediately described by all sides as “fragile”.
Hamas officials also said they would not be responsible for any violations by other Palestinian groups of the cease-fire or “tahdiya”.
The Israeli Government, however, has the position that Hamas is in charge of the Gaza Strip, so Hamas bears the ultimate responsibility for any attacks on Israel, even those attacks carried out by other groups.
Nor was there any major increase, starting on Sunday, despite initial predictions when the truce deal was first announced, of the amount of traffic at the border crossings through which the Israeli military controls the entry of all goods and people into the Gaza.
This apparently may have been mainly due to the court case instituted on Saturday after the end of the Sabbath (Shabbat) by the parents of Gilad Shalit, the captured Israeli soldier being held in Gaza. The Shalits had asked the Court for clarifications about the negotiations, and also asking the Court to instruct the government not to lessen pressure for their son’s release. They said their aim was to save their son’s life.
Israel’s YNet website reported on Sunday, however, that Barak said, as the Israeli cabinet held its weekly meeting, that “Anyone who lives in the Middle East and thinks that the ceasefire itself or the opening of border crossings will provide enough leverage to result in the immediate return of Gilad Shalit would do well to come back down to Earth … We’re not deluding ourselves, opening or closing gates won’t make it possible to retrieve Shalit”. However, YNet added, Barak said that “the ceasefire provides us with an opportunity for intense negotiations over Shalit, and we will have to make some tough decisions.”
And another YNet article reported, that Amos Gilad, head of the Defense Ministry’s Security-Diplomatic Bureau – who has been the main liaison with Egypt on the Gaza truce talks – met with Noam Shalit, the father of Gilad (the young Israeli soldier held captive in Gaza), on Sunday night at the direction of the Israeli Supreme Court.
YNet reported that an apparently very well-informed “Defense Ministry official stressed that were it not for the Gaza truce, a path that could lead to Schalit’s release would not even exist. ‘At this present moment, the truce is the best option which can be be used as a framework to kick start a process of dialogue, which, with Egyptian mediation, we hope will bring about Gilad’s return’, he said. ‘I explained in great detail the advantage of this process as opposed to other options through which it is doubtful that Gilad will be released. [By contrast, or on the other hand] We could never have ensured that Gilad would be freed as soon as the cease-fire went into effect’, this Defense Ministry official told YNet. The YNet article continued: “Gilad stressed that that Rafah border crossing ‘is closed and will remain closed’, emphasizing that in any case, Schalit’s captors had no interest in transferring him from Gaza to Egypt”.
Then, on Monday afternoon, the Israeli Supreme Court declined to intervene in the Israeli Government’s decision to pursue the Egyptian-brokered ceasefire with Hamas.
Interestingly, among the concessions that former American President Jimmy Carter said he had obtained from his various meetings with Hamas officials in the West Bank, in Cairo, and in Damascus, was that Hamas would allow Shalit to send a rare letter to his parents (this was delivered through the Carter Center office in Ramallah last week), and then allow Shalit to be transferred from Gaza to Egypt in an intermediary phase, pending the satisfactory conclusion of negotiations for his release.
There was no mention of this at all in Sharm as-Sheikh on Tuesday.
It would have been difficult, however, for Egypt to agree to continue, in any way, the continuation of Shalit’s captivity, even for humanitarian reasons, and even if it would improve the conditions in which Shalit is being held.
But why the more nuanced Israeli position explained on Sunday was reversed so sharply by Olmert in Sharm as-Sheikh on Tuesday is unclear.
On Tuesday afternoon, after the Olmert-Mubarak summit consultations, an Israeli official traveling with the Israeli Prime Minister told an Israeli reporter that Egypt had given Israel strong assurances that Rafah would not be opened again until Shalit is released.
An earlier estimation in the Israeli press, published over the weekend, was that Egypt has actually allowed Rafah to open at least 50 times – to Israel’s great and expressed displeasure — since the European Union withdrew its monitors there under instructions following the Hamas rout of Fatah Security forces in mid-June 2007. This included when Palestinian pilgrims from Gaza were unable to leave for the Hajj pilgrimage in Mecca, which Israeli officials protested strenuously, and then again after the Gaza pilgrim endured great hardships in returning from Mecca, and several died in the difficult conditions when some refused Israeli orders to re-enter only through the Israeli-controlled high-tech Kerem Shalom crossing (near which Shalit was captured in June 2006). Another of the reported 50 times Egypt allowed Rafah to stay open was immediatly after the January 23 planned breach from Gaza of the sealed Rafah crossing, following one of the shut-downs of the Gaza power plant for lack of fuel.
According to the Ynet report, Barak said on Sunday [apparently in the regular weekly Israeli cabinet meeting] that “regarding the Rafah crossing, the issue has not yet been resolved. The Egyptians know we have tied Rafah to other issues on the agenda.”
Israeli government spokesperson Mark Regev told journalists in Sharm as-Sheikh Tuesday afternoon, after the Olmert-Mubarak meeting, that for the Israeli government and the Israeli public, “the issue of Shalit is central”.
He stated firmly that Israel “cannot talk about anything close to a normal opening of the border crossings [with Gaza] without Shalit’s release”. According to Regev,“the deterioration of relations between Israel and Gaza started with the kidnapping of Gilad Shalit”.
Regev pointedly added, Tuesday, that “We heard some statements from Gaza over the weekend that were not factual, and we were disturbed”.
The journalists who traveled from Israel to cover the Olmert-Mubarak meeting were given a totally uninformed choice, upon arrival in Sharm as-Sheikh, of going to the Royal Golf Hotel where the meeting was actually held – where, the journalists were told, they would be held in a room for the duration, without even water to drink, and with no access to the internet.
Otherwise, the Israeli organizers said to the traveling press, they could go to the Movenpick Hotel, where there would be wireless internet availability, and all sorts of other creature comforts.
This journalist was one of a few who chose to be as close as possible to the meeting – and discovered that the room where the journalists were told they would be (and were) confined, was also, happily, where the official Egyptian press was waiting.
Israeli and Egyptian television cameramen happily traded film shots after they returned from their permitted exit – alone –from the confinement room for an initial “photo op”.
And a few Israeli officials worked the room, and one in particular was received very well, who earnestly and with sincerely explained Israel’s position at length in excellent fluent Egyptian-accented Arabic. She appeared to be just another journalist, but she turned out to be the very open and effective Director of the Arabic Press and Public Affairs Department at the Israeli Foreign Ministry. Amira Oron.
Mubarak’s main spokesperson, Suleiman Awad, then came when the summit meeting was over to brief the waiting journalists that the discussions had been “very constructive” — an “open, transparent consultation on the current situation in the Middle East” that focused mainly on (1) “the package of understandings relating to the cessation of hostilities in Gaza”, and (2) “the negotiations between the Palestine National Authority and the Israeli authorities on final status sticky issues”.
Asked about a proposed prisoner swap involving some of the 10,000 Palestinians in Israeli jails and Gilad Shalit, the Israeli soldier who has been held for the past two years by Palestinian fighters in Gaza, Awad told journalists to “wait and see” until Mubarak addresses the issue in an interview with Israeli Channel 1 TV to be aired on Tuesday evening.
After the interview was aired, however, the Israeli press and public seemed largely unimpressed with the anticipated “revelations”.
On Wednesday morning, the main headline in the Jerusalem Post was that Mubarak said “Use of force against Iran will be a mistake …Whether this force is used by the US or Israel it will lead to tragedy.” On Shalit, Mubarak reportedly commented: “Why mix the issues? Is it better to fire at each other even if Schalit is not released?” Mubarak added that it was “only a matter of time” before Shalit is freed, the Jerusalem Post reported, and he urged patience and “careful consideration”.
The report said that Mubarak scoffed at the notion that Shalit could be smuggled out of Gaza if the border crossing at Rafah were reopened: There is no way this can be done secretly… everyone will know about it.” This, interestingly, was the concern famously expressed in late June 2006 by Israeli spokesperson Mark Regev, when he was working earlier for the Israeli Foreign Ministry, and explained that Israel’s air raid that destroyed Gaza’s only (civilian) power plant just after Shalit’s capture was justified because, without electricity for lights, it would be much more difficult for Shalit’s kidnappers to move him around “in the dark”.
A European diplomat with long experience in the region said that he had been learned, at the time, that Shalit was originally captured by the same Dagmush family in Gaza that had also seized BBC journalist Alan Johnston. Hamas, the diplomat said, successfully issued an ultimatum at the time to the Dagmush clan to hand over Shalit – if not, Hamas threatened, according to the diplomat, to destroy the whole quarter where the family lived and everyone in it, including Shalit, they didn’t care. The strength and severity of the ultimatum had the desired effect, the diplomat said.
(It was many long months before Hamas issued the same sort of ultimatum to get the apparently much more expendible and less high-value Johnston released.)
Awad, in his briefing to journalists on Tuesday, said that President Mubarak expressed hopes in the meeting with Olmert that both Israel and the Palestinians will “stick to their commitments, entrench the current calm, and refrain from any acts that would recreate the vicious cycle of violence”. This, he said, would enable the Palestinian people to establish an independent Palestinian state.
Egypt, Awad said, has “exerted a great deal of effort in arduous negotiations to conclude the current talks about Gaza” – and it has been doing so for months and months. But, he said, “I do not want to go into the details”.
He added that Egypt is willing and even determined to continue its efforts, Awad added, but this requires compromise and flexibility “from both parties – Israel and the Palestinians”.
In his briefing to the journalists after the summit meeting, the Israeli Prime Minister’s spokesman Mark Regev said diplomatically that Israel “applauds Egypt’s role” in bringing about the calm and the release – “but as to the details, they are discrete, and between the two governments”.
Israeli Prime Minister Olmert left Sharm as-Sheikh in time to join Israel’s President Shimon Peres for the formal farewell ceremony for French President Sarkozy at Ben Gurion Airport.
Officials in Olmert’s office offered to facilitate the transfer and access for any of the traveling journalists who also wanted to cover the airport ceremony – but, at the passport control re-entry, where the Israeli journalists had quick and easy passage, the officials from the Prime Minister’s staff simply abandoned two American journalists (including this one) who were delayed by the procedures. This was not surprising, the other American journalist said. These officials simply aim to help their friends in the Israeli media, and that’s it.
Before being obliged to go through passport control, the group of journalists who wanted to attend the farewell ceremony had been bussed around the area where the French plane was waiting, and a double row of Israel and French flags (all in crisp tones of white and blue with a touch of red in the case of the French) were flapping in the hot breeze. All was calm, and there was no sign of anything unusual.
It must have been just at the same time that an Israeli Border Policeman who was guarding the ceremony – but at least 100 meters away from the Prime Minister and the two Presidents, and on a roof – was shot. It was immediately declared most likely a suicide – a conclusion that was reinforced following a short investigation.
The Jerusalem Post added, in a report in Wednesday’s paper, that “No one on the tarmac heard the shot that ended a border policeman’s life a few hundred meters away from the leaders of Israel and France at Ben-Gurion Airport on Tuesday, but security agents, fearing an assassination attempt, scrambled into action after news of the unexpected development reached them via their radio earpieces”.