Egypt: Mideast Peace Talks In September

1129.jpgA Mideast peace conference called for by President Bush will take place in September on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly meeting in New York, an Egyptian envoy said Thursday.

Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit also said Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice will discuss the conference’s agenda with Arab foreign ministers July 31 in the Egyptian Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheik.

“Egypt’s vision is that the meeting should handle a wide number of issues,” he said at a press conference in Cairo. “(That includes) launching the peace process in active negotiations between the Israeli and Palestinian parties.”

The State Department said Thursday the date and place for the conference had not yet been set, reports CBS News’ Charles Wolfson.”

In other developments:

  • A top PLO body gave President Mahmoud Abbas preliminary approval Thursday for new presidential and legislative elections, a high-stakes gamble meant to sideline Hamas, but also bound to set off new confrontations with the Islamic militants and cement the West Bank-Gaza divide. Hamas, which won parliament elections last year, immediately threatened to derail a new vote.
  • Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Portuguese Foreign Minister Luis Amado, whose country holds the rotating E.U. presidency, both rejected any dealings with Hamas, even as some questioned if the stance could compromise new envoy Tony Blair’s work with the Palestinians. Rice was in Lisbon for a meeting of the Quartet — the U.S., E.U., the U.N. and Russia — with Blair. “Hamas, I think, knows what is expected for international respectability,” Rice told reporters.
  • A senior Israeli security official said Hamas militants have significantly stepped up weapons smuggling since taking over Gaza by force last month. He said Hamas has brought 20 tons of explosives into Gaza and is trying to import longer-range rockets. Israel’s military will have to intervene at some point to avert a growing threat, the official said, raising the possibility of a large-scale operation in coming months.
  • About 2,000 people protested at the border terminal between Egypt and the Gaza Strip on Thursday, demanding the crossing be opened to allow thousands of Palestinians trapped in Egypt to return. The Rafah border terminal, the only gateway for Palestinian travelers to the world, has been closed since June 9, the start of bloody factional fighting in which Hamas routed rival Fatah forces and took control of Gaza.
  • Under an agreement with the government, Israel’s Orthodox rabbis will permit Israelis not recognized as practicing Jews to wed each other in civil marriages, loosening the monopoly held by religious authorities over domestic affairs. But the chief rabbi who endorsed the accord, Shlomo Amar, insisted there will be no relaxation in the prohibition on interfaith marriages.

    Aboul Gheit’s announcement about the conference came as a one-day meeting in Lisbon brought together the Mideast Quartet — United States, the European Union, Russia and the United Nations. It was the group’s first meeting since the hardline Islamic group Hamas wrested control of the Gaza Strip from the more moderate Fatah last month.

    The power grab split the Palestinian leadership and placed yet another obstacle in the way of a broad Mideast peace deal. But it also prompted Israel and the West to seek ways to shore up beleaguered Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.

    On Monday, President Bush proposed that an international gathering be held later this year, aimed at restarting peace talks.

  • Hamas has rejected Mr. Bush’s proposal for the peace conference, and Syria said the offer may be “just words” for now. Washington’s close Arab allies welcomed the Bush proposal, but they stressed the importance of making a land-for-peace Arab peace plan first adopted in 2002 key to any talks.

    U.S. officials expressed hope that Arab countries, including moderate nations that do not have diplomatic relations with Israel, would attend, in an apparent reference to Saudi Arabia.

    With international backing, Abbas now heads an emergency government based in the West Bank. Hamas, which refuses to recognize Israel, remains isolated in Gaza.

    A 1991 Mideast peace conference in Madrid, sponsored by former President George H.W. Bush, paved the way for the Oslo peace accords and the establishment of the Palestinian Authority. But repeated stalemates have since left many skeptical that a repeat of that gathering could lead to any enduring breakthrough.

    On Thursday, the PLO Central Council drafted a resolution backing the idea of elections, and final approval was expected later in the day. The council is dominated by members of Abbas’ Fatah movement.

    The Palestine Liberation Organization, led by Abbas, has become largely defunct in recent years, though officially it is still the umbrella group for all Palestinian factions, except for Hamas which refused to join. Abbas has been trying to harness the PLO for his power struggle against Hamas.

    It remains unclear whether Abbas is serious about a new vote or simply trying to pressure Hamas to reverse its Gaza takeover.

    The risks of holding elections are high. Abbas aides have said he would run for president again, even though polls indicate his popularity is low and he’d be neck-and-neck with Hamas’ most popular politician, Ismail Haniyeh, who was deposed as prime minister by Abbas last month.

    Hamas can prevent voting in Gaza, and this would deepen the territorial division between Hamas-run Gaza and the Abbas-ruled West Bank.

    Even if voting goes ahead in the West Bank, a Fatah stronghold, there’s no guarantee Abbas or his party would win. Fatah was ousted in 2006 because of widespread voter anger over official corruption, and the party has failed to reform itself.

    If Abbas moves forward with elections, they would likely be held late this year or early next year.

    Since the Hamas takeover, Egypt, Israel and a EU team that monitored the Rafah crossing have kept it closed. Health conditions have become a concern because many Palestinians stranded in Egypt went there for medical treatment.

    “This crossing must be opened,” said Salah Hassanen, a local leader from Islamic Jihad, one of the groups organizing the protest. “It’s a Palestinian crossing. Our people, our relatives are dying on the other side.”

    Later Thursday, Egyptian authorities imposed an indefinite curfew on their side of the divided town of Rafah following rumors that Palestinian gunmen planned to blow a hole in the border wall.

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