Egypt suggests restarting peace talks as part of ceasefire bid

Egyptian FM meets with Kerry, who says he wants to end fighting and find ‘a way to deal with the underlying issues’

US Secretary of State John Kerry meets with Egypt's Foreign Minister Sameh Shukri in Cairo on July 22, 2014. (photo credit: AFP)
US Secretary of State John Kerry meets with Egypt's Foreign Minister Sameh Shukri in Cairo on July 22, 2014. (photo credit: AFP)

CAIRO — Egypt’s foreign minister raised the possibility Tuesday of restarting stalled peace talks between Israelis and Palestinians as part of negotiating a ceasefire in the war that has broken out in the Gaza Strip.

At the start of a meeting with US Secretary of State John Kerry, Foreign Minister Sameh Shukri said he planned to work with US and other world leaders “to not only resolve this issue but also to set in motion once again the peace process that Secretary Kerry has been so actively involved in so as to end this ongoing conflict between the Palestinians and the Israelis.”

Kerry said his discussions with Shukri sought to “hopefully find not only a way to a cease-fire, but a way to deal with the underlying issues, which are very complicated.” But he stopped short of agreeing to reopen the peace talks that abruptly broke off last April after nearly nine months of his personal attention.

Kerry is in Cairo trying to help broker a truce after two weeks of fighting that have killed more than 500 Palestinians, according to Palestinian reports, and 30 Israelis.

Before Kerry began his meetings with top Egyptian and Arab League officials Tuesday, Israeli aircraft hit more than 70 targets in the Gaza Strip, including the home of the late leader of Hamas’s military wing, five mosques and a football stadium, according to a Gaza police official. Hamas fired a barrage of rockets that targeted towns and cities in the south as well as Tel Aviv and central Israel.

President Barack Obama, meanwhile, is trying a delicate balancing act on the Mideast conflict. Obama on Monday reaffirmed his belief that Israel has the right to defend itself against a barrage of more than 1,500 rockets launched by Hamas, while voicing fresh concern about civilian casualties.

He said Israel’s military assault of Gaza had already done “significant damage” to Hamas’ network of tunnels, safe havens and other infrastructure as he talked of the need for a ceasefire.

“We have serious concerns about the rising number of Palestinian civilian deaths and the loss of Israeli lives,” Obama said in Washington. “And that is why it now has to be our focus and the focus of the international community to bring about a cease-fire that ends the fighting and can stop the deaths of innocent civilians, both in Gaza and in Israel.”

Kerry flew to Cairo on Monday to join diplomatic efforts to resume a truce that last had been agreed to in November 2012. He will urge the Palestinian Islamist group to accept a ceasefire agreement offered by Egypt.

Upon arriving, Kerry headed almost immediately into a meeting with UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon, where he announced the US will send $47 million in humanitarian aid for tens of thousands of Palestinians who have fled their homes in Gaza to escape the violence. Kerry’s top aides warned that achieving an immediate and lasting cease-fire would be difficult, but said he hoped to make progress over the next several days to secure at least a temporary pause in the bloodshed.

Ban, speaking to reporters before the meeting with Kerry, said he was disappointed that nine months of US-led talks between Israel and the Palestinians hadn’t yielded better results. Those negotiations ended after it was clear that neither side would make major concessions needed to clinch a peace plan.

“Violence must stop and must stop now,” Ban told reporters.

It’s not clear exactly what Israel and Hamas would each demand in return for agreeing to a truce now, but senior State Department officials said the issue of opening border crossings from Gaza — potentially into Israel and Egypt — was under discussion.

Kerry met early Tuesday with Palestinian intelligence chief Majid Faraj, and was expected to meet with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, Arab League President Nabil Elaraby and other top officials over the next few days. But there were no immediate plans for face-to-face meetings with officials from Qatar, Turkey, Israel and Ramallah, and the State Department aides said it remained uncertain what could be accomplished in the talks.

A truce between Israel and Hamas has been beset by violence three times since 2009, and was last brokered in November 2012 by Kerry’s predecessor, Hillary Rodham Clinton.

Having already deployed an estimated 1,000 ground troops, Israel’s military has pushed farther into Gaza than it had in 2012 and the conflict is farther along now than it was then. Israel has uncovered a network of what it is calling “attack tunnels” dug from Gaza under the Israeli border. Hamas has attempted five attacks from the tunnels in recent days, killing six IDF soldiers; 20 Hamas terrorists have been killed in the attacks.

State officials noted that Hamas believes it was not given what it was promised in 2012 to lay down its arms, making it more skeptical of a cease-fire now.

Finally, Hamas’s relationship with Egypt, which is negotiating directly with the militant group, has deteriorated since President Mohammed Morsi was ousted in last year’s coup. Egypt has since outlawed Morsi’s party, the Muslim Brotherhood, which has ties to Hamas.

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