Amid consensus over Palestinian reconciliation, fears are rising about whether it will hold in the face of future threats, and what impact it will have on prospects of a political settlement with Israel when the latter is refusing and vowing to block Palestinian unity.
Discussing developments on the Palestinian scene, Ambassador Mohamed Sobeih, deputy secretary general of the Arab League, said that the chief of Hamas’s politburo, Khaled Meshal, spoke about reconciliation in a way that satisfied everyone. This included his position on the forming of a new government, on popular resistance, even reforming the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO). On all these points, Sobeih said, a new position has been developed that does not contradict what Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas said in his recent address.
“Accordingly, we can say that we are at the threshold of a new phase where every party understands well that this is an opportunity we should not squander, although there are many challenges and dangers ahead of us,” Sobeih said at a conference meeting in Cairo under the banner ‘Prospects of settlement after Palestinian reconciliation’ hosted by the National Centre for Middle East Studies (NCMES).
Sobeih revealed that there are internal and external challenges facing the reconciliation deal, particularly the US reaction and Israeli threats that include blocking financial assistance. Meanwhile, the US Congress is threatening President Abbas on the composition of the proposed new government, rejecting any role for Hamas since Congress considers it a “terrorist organisation”.
As for internal challenges, there is concern that extremist elements on both sides, in Fatah and in Hamas, do not want reconciliation to occur, having benefited from division, or perhaps because they will not have a role to play in the new phase.
“There are those who want to undermine the next government, making it unable to pay salaries and to cut its contacts with the world community,” stated Sobeih. “Arab governments have not paid the financial assistance promised in Sirte. While the EU has taken a progressive position, and even indicated that it is willing to recognise a Palestinian state within the 1967 borders, there are suggestions by Sarkozy to hold an international conference and [to push a] new initiative for settlement. Unfortunately, this initiative seems precarious; for example, it denies the right of return for refugees, which is unacceptable for any Palestinian government irrespective of the rewards.”
Discussing the future prospects of Palestinian-Israeli settlement, Abdel-Alim Mohamed, adviser to Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies (ACPSS), believes the image of the Arabs has improved remarkably in the eyes of the West since the outbreak of Arab revolutions in several Arab countries. From negative and submissive, Arabs are being perceived as active and positive, raising their esteem on the international stage.
More importantly, Egypt has regained its leading role in the region. Mohamed argued that these factors directly serve the Palestinian cause.
Peace in the future, Mohamed asserted, will not be a copy of what Egypt and Jordan signed in the past, since now the Arab people have become a party to future peace settlements. It is no longer acceptable that oppressive regimes take action unilaterally. Accordingly, "there are now requirements for a new peace that is acceptable to the people, and meets the ambitions and aspirations of the Palestinian people."
Mohamed noted that there is a new trend inside Israel calling for a fresh approach and that proposes a peace initiative similar to the Arab peace initiative.
Tarek Fahmy, head of the Palestinian and Israeli Studies unit at ACPSS, said that change is underway inside Israel, especially since intelligence agencies failed to anticipate both the Arab revolutions and Palestinian reconciliation. The political game in Israel today is believed to be based on damage limitation relative to Arab revolutions and Palestinian reconciliation.
Fahmy asserted that there is consensus inside Israel that there is a need to undermine reconciliation in three ways. First, Netanyahu headed to Europe and in London talked about Hamas as a terrorist group. Second, Tel Aviv has taken off the table what in March it proposed — a new initiative for the gradual creation of a Palestinian state. Third, prioritising the military option, as foregrounded in the Gaza Strip.
The issue of opening Egypt border with Gaza at Rafah was heavily debated by experts and politicians attending the NCMES conference.
Egypt’s former ambassador to Tel Aviv, Hassan Eissa, who was moderating the discussion, said: “The way in which the border at Rafah is open right now is worrisome because it is based on the sentiments of the people rooted in the belief that the former regime in Egypt was suffocating the Gaza Strip. I never thought that the day would come when someone would claim that Egypt was conspiring with Israel against the Palestinians; this is a false accusation. The matter requires further study in the security, political and legal domains. In fact, Haaretz newspaper argued that there is a positive dimension in opening the Rafah border because it prepares the Gaza Strip for separation and Egypt could take over control there.”
Mohamed Megahed, ACPSS director, countered that the accusations leveled against Egypt when the Rafah border crossing was closed were sound. Megahed wondered why Cairo didn’t handle the Rafah border crossing like any other, according to security and formal procedures, instead of allowing itself to be subject to such accusations by permitting some people through and blocking others for unknown reasons. It would be better for Egypt to create a free trade zone instead of the trading that takes place through the tunnels, and have trade ties with the powers in place, whether Al-Oga or Karam Abu Salem, because the previous policy damaged Egypt’s popularity.
The proposal was rejected by some participating experts and heatedly debated until Sobeih interceded: “There are seven crossings on the border which must all be addressed, and not just one.” At the same time, he criticised Cairo’s previous policy of dealing with the border crossing. "As for Egypt taking control after the separation of Gaza from the West Bank, it was understood that the plan by former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to withdraw from the West Bank was for Egypt to suspend all agreements regarding the border. We must understand that when we talk about border crossing agreements.”
Sobeih explained that security issues in the reconciliation deal remain volatile and require an Egyptian role. There are no problems on other issues, and claims that issues were resolved without discussing details are untrue because there was an extensive dialogue on these issues in Damascus. Sobeih was responding to an assertion by Emad Gad, editor of Israeli Excerpts at ACPSS, that the reconciliation agreement was too hasty and lacked detailed discussion of many issues.
There was also heated debate over the electoral process when Gad said that Palestinian elections are an invention similar to the Oslo process, since revolutionary factions do not hold elections. Sobeih contradicted this position by saying that democratic balloting is necessary in the eyes of the international community and the Palestinian leadership must be elected.
Mustafa Kamel El-Sayed, political science professor at Cairo University, asserted that “concerns over the legality of opening the border crossing is solvable, because the rule is that the crossing should remain open according to international humanitarian law and international human rights law.”
He added: “In light of Egypt’s new policy, we must keep the border open and not necessarily listen to Israel and the US. On the contrary, we should do the opposite. Take Turkey, for example. Its position towards Israel is clear and now [Ankara and Tel Aviv] are hostile towards each other. Nonetheless, Turkey remains an ally of the US and Washington is currying its favour.”
On the issue of reconciliation, El-Sayed said: “We reiterate the importance of Palestinian reconciliation and the importance of other rights, and using them as leverage with everyone because now there is a united Palestinian front when in the past there were excuses.”
Sobeih agreed, saying: “Come September, we expect recognition of the Palestinian state by the UN and more than 90 per cent of its member states, with the exception of Israel, the US, and other marginal countries.”
Kamel concurred: “After the UN meets and there is international acceptance, there will be no more relevant US initiatives or solutions, especially that Obama will be busy with his reelection campaign and must gain the approval of Israel in order for him to win comfortably. After that, he is expected to have more freedom. What is needed is an eruption in the Israeli position, and we must work on moving the cause forward if the previous action plan is no longer viable. Accordingly, there is a need for armed resistance.”
This statement reignited heated debate at the conference, with the moderator of the session, Ambassador Eissa, deciding to adjourn the gathering.