by David Harris
JERUSALEM, July 18 (Xinhua) -- When foreign ministers of more than 20 Arab states meet on July 29 under the umbrella of the Arab League (AL), they will likely be asked whether the time has come for the Palestinians to enter direct peace negotiations with Israel. Their decision could well affect the fate of the on-off talks.
As it stands the Palestinians currently oppose sitting face to face with Israeli negotiators. However, Palestinian and Egyptian officials are suggesting that if between now and then Israel makes some form of concrete commitment regarding the future borders of a Palestinian state, AL could well approve the resumption of direct talks after a hiatus of some two years.
This was perhaps the key message to come out of a day of intense diplomacy the epicenter of which was in Cairo.
The key meetings included a session between Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. That was followed by a conversation between Mubarak and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Meanwhile, AL General Secretary Amr Moussa, also based in the Egyptian capital, met the U.S. Middle East peace envoy George Mitchell, who later held talks with Mubarak.
Jerusalem was also the backdrop for important meetings. In the morning Netanyahu met Mitchell, who in turn visited Abbas in Ramallah on Saturday evening. Netanyahu then made a key comment regarding security on the Egyptian border at the weekly meeting of the Israeli cabinet. On his return from Cairo, Netanyahu also met European Union (EU) policy chief Catherine Ashton and Tony Blair, who is the Middle East envoy for the international peace Quartet, which comprises the U.S., Russia, the EU and the United Nations.
This was Netanyahu's second trip to Egypt within a month. Sandwiched in between was his journey to Washington and an apparently positive meeting with Obama.
Theoretically, Sunday's parley between Mubarak and Netanyahu was an opportunity for the latter to update his host on the White House talks. However, the session was seemingly much more about moving forward than reviewing recent events.
Netanyahu is leading the push for an end to indirect talks and the early commencement of meaningful direct negotiations. Ahead of the meeting, Mubarak was supportive of the Palestinian position. Abbas has made it clear he will only agree to meeting Netanyahu once Israel makes a serious move regarding borders and security.
Yet, ostensibly with Obama's backing, Netanyahu is arguing that such advances can only be made once the negotiators sit in the same room.
Netanyahu has to get direct talks in place prior to September 26. On that date his 10-month, self-declared settlement freeze will come to an end. If the parties are not involved in serious talks by then, Netanyahu could face the collapse of his government.
Seemingly as if to send out a positive signal to the Palestinians and the AL, while Netanyahu was in Cairo, back in Israel his Defense Minister Ehud Barak was meeting the leader of the opposition Tzipi Livni.
It is the first time the two have met publicly in months, giving rise to speculation that Netanyahu is prepared to drop the more hawkish members of his coalition and replace them with Livni' s Kadima party should the hawks threaten to bring his government down if he extends the settlement moratorium.
Netanyahu hopes the Palestinians will agree to the early launching of direct talks to get him out of that sticky situation at home. It was with this in mind that Netanyahu entered his meeting with Mubarak on Sunday.
EGYPT'S PIVOTAL ROLE
"The Egyptians have good relations with both the Israelis and the Palestinian National Authority (PNA) and for a long time have shown their loyalty to the peace process and to regional stability, " said Hassan Abou Taleb, an international relations expert and consultant to Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies in Cairo.
Abou Taleb believes that Cairo uses its good favor with both sides in the conflict to pressure them where necessary to make moves that will be constructive for the peace process.
Not only is Cairo dealing with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but it is trying to tackle the intra-Palestinian schism in parallel. Abou Taleb knows that given the ongoing split between Fatah and Hamas, creating a workable Israeli-Palestinian deal is not going to be easy. Despite that, he urges the Israelis to continue to speak with Abbas.
Egypt's role is also not underestimated by former senior Israeli negotiator Gilead Sher. He was the leading Israeli representative in talks with the Arab world when Barak was prime minister in the late 1990s and into 2000.
"Egypt is a very important force in the Arab world in general and with regard to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in particular, over the last 15 years," said Sher.
If Israel is taking the talks seriously then it has to examine every option that will allow direct talks to begin and that includes using Cairo's influence, according to Sher.
EU GIVES MORE CASH TO PALESTINIANS
The Palestinians could well be influenced in the direction of the negotiating table by some financial backing from the U.S. and the EU. Over the weekend the EU made clear it is prepared to offer cash support to the Palestinians.
As part of Ashton's visit to the region she announced some 50 million euros will be transferred to the Palestinians, with more to follow. In making public the donation Ashton stressed that " Palestinian statehood is critical for any peaceful, workable and lasting solution."
In a separate development on Sunday that has clear ramifications for Cairo, Netanyahu announced that it is his intention to construct a physical barrier between Israel and Egypt. Only small sections of the inhospitable desert frontier are presently fenced. However, an estimated 1,200 illegal immigrants, mainly from Africa, are entering Israel from Egypt each month.
They are becoming a threat to the Jewish and democratic nature of the state, Netanyahu told his cabinet colleagues at Sunday's cabinet meeting.
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