OCCUPIED JERUSALEM â€” Egyptian intelligence chief, Omar Suleiman, yesterday met with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to discuss ways of shoring up the ceasefire and border controls between Gaza and Egypt. The visit came at the same time as EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana met Israeli officials to discuss how to use the momentum of the Gaza withdrawal to restart the peace process.
Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, meanwhile, said on Monday not all settlements Israel currently maintains in the West Bank will remain in place in a final peace accord with the Palestinians.
Suleiman was on his first visit to Gaza.
He will make a rare public appearance to the Palestinian parliament Tuesday, reading a speech on behalf of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. He was due yesterday to meet leaders of the Palestinian opposition factions to encourage them to abide by their commitments to the PA to maintain the current ceasefire.
On Sunday, a suicide bombing claimed jointly by Islamic Jihad and Al Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades left 48 Israelis wounded. The groups said the bombing was in retaliation for an Israeli military incursion into Tulkarem last week that left five Palestinians dead.
In addition to shoring up the ceasefire, Abbas and Suleiman, who is due to meet Sharon on Tuesday, were also due to discuss a regime for movement across the Egypt-Gaza border. Under an agreement with the Israeli government, Egypt will deploy 750 lightly armed troops to replace Israeli forces controlling the crossing into Egypt’s Sinai desert. The Israeli Cabinet approved the plan Sunday, and parliament is being summoned from its summer recess this week to approve the accord.
Palestinians want to maintain the Rafah Crossing as the official crossing for goods and people between Egypt and Gaza, and have proposed third-party supervision. Israel, however, wants to move the crossing to a point on Gaza’s southeastern edge where Gaza, Israel and Egypt meet, in effect to maintain control.
Israeli officials said it was unclear whether Suleiman would be able to bridge the differences on his current trip.
Interior Minister Ophir Pines-Paz said it could take months to reach an agreement over control of Gaza’s border crossings into Egypt, as well as Palestinian movement between Gaza and the West Bank, which would pass through Israel.
“We want to help them, to give them the opportunity to cross as easy as they can from Gaza to the West Bank â€” but on the other hand, because of the fact that it’s going to move through Israel, we have to be very careful,” Pines-Paz told reporters. “They have to take into consideration civilian and security needs of all people, Israelis and Palestinians.”
On Monday, Solana was meeting Israeli officials in a bid to breathe life back into the peace process and get the two parties to implement the so-called roadmap plan for peace. On Sunday, he met Sharon, and, according to a spokeswoman, told Sharon that the Gaza pullout was an opportunity to make progress on the wider peace process that should not to be missed.
“It would be a very big mistake not to capitalise on the momentum given by the redeployment,” Solana was quoted as telling Sharon.
“Everyone must show courage and use this new-found hope. We are aware of the difficulties but we must move forward.”
Also Sunday, Solana met Israeli Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom, who said there could be no progress on the roadmap until the PA moved against armed groups.
“We cannot have a return to the roadmap unless the terrorist organisations are dismantled,” said Shalom.
“If this wave of terrorism against Israeli citizens continues, I fear that this painful initiative (the Gaza pullout) will end in failure and the hopes for peace will be dashed,” added the hawkish minister.
Solana was due to continue a round of meetings with Israeli officials Monday, including Defence Minister Shaul Mofaz and Deputy Prime Minister Shimon Peres.
He should then head to Gaza City for talks with Abbas late Monday and Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia on Tuesday.
The European Union â€” along with the United States, the United Nations and Russia â€” is one of the sponsors of the roadmap, which plots the creation of an independent Palestinian state alongside Israel. The blueprint plan has made next to no progress since it was endorsed by the Israelis and Palestinians in 2003.
Interviewed on Channel 10 TV in the wake of his eviction of settlers from all 21 settlements in the Gaza Strip and four in the West Bank, Sharon insisted that all of the main settlement blocs would remain under Israeli sovereignty, but “not all the settlements of today in Judea and Samaria will remain,” referring to the West Bank.
Sharon said there would be no “second stage of disengagement,” as he calls the pullout, either unilateral or coordinated. He said the next step must be negotiations under the roadmap that leads through three stages to a Palestinian state.
“This was a one-time action,” Sharon said. “There is not another stage. There are no more stages of disengagement.” Sharon said the issue of Israel’s borders could be raised only at the end of the blueprint. “The final map of the roadmap will be determined in the last stage of the process.” Sharon blasted his party rival, Benjamin Netanyahu, who is expected to announce his candidacy this week to challenge Sharon for leadership of the Likud Party.
Netanyahu resigned as finance minister days before the Gaza pullout, saying he could not take responsibility for it. This coincided with presentation of next year’s budget to the Cabinet.
On both counts, Sharon said, Netanyahu displayed irresponsibility. “He panics and loses control. I’ve seen that more than once,” Sharon said. “Someone who runs from responsibility … cannot be trusted to run the country, certainly not a country like Israel,” he said.