Palestinian and Israeli negotiators arriving in Cairo on 23 March signalled that they would be able to find a formula to restart formal peace talks. The informal talks, which began in Tunis and moved to Cairo after two days, have continued against a backdrop of diplomatic activity from the peace process co-sponsors, the US and Russia, and the passing of a UN resolution condemning the Hebron massacre.
US officials, who have been present at the meetings in Tunis and Cairo, say the negotiations have gone beyond discussions on the conditions required to restart the formal talks and have delved into the substance of the negotiations.
At the top of the agenda for the PLO is the security surrounding the Palestinians in the occupied territories. The issue was highlighted by continued violence in Hebron itself, on the day the Cairo talks began, between the Israeli army and Palestinians. The 18-hour gun battle left five Palestinians dead, four of them said to be members of the Islamist group Hamas.
Nabil Shaath, the PLO’s chief negotiator, said on arrival in Cairo that he was waiting to hear the Israeli delegation’s response to PLO demands, including the need for a lightly armed international protection force and the dismantling of settler enclaves in the heart of Hebron.
Faisal al-Husseini, the PLO representative in Jerusalem, said on 23 March that the Israeli concessions on security, particularly in relation to the settlers in Hebron and Gaza, are inadequate. But Israel’s hardline stance in negotiations looks weaker on the ground. Both Israelis and Palestinians say Israeli military bases in Gaza are already being dismantled ready for quick redeployment, and alternative offices are being set up in Erez, the border crossing between Gaza and Israel.
The Palestinians hand has been strengthened by the UN resolution, passed on 18 March, condemning the Hebron massacre. The resolution calls for a protection force as well as action by Israel against armed settlers. Washington abstained on paragraphs referring to Jerusalem as part of the occupied territories. Passing the resolution was one of the key demands made by Arab states to get the peace process moving again.
The co-sponsors of the peace talks have responded quickly to demands in the resolution to accelerate the peace process. Dennis Ross, a US envoy, started a tour of Arab states on 21 March, beginning with a meeting with PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat in Tunis. The Russians have also acted promptly, sending envoy Viktor Posuvalyuk to Tunis on 20 March to give Moscow’s backing to Palestinian demands for an international presence.