During my summer trip to Paris, where I had planned to investigate developments in world ideas, I found that a number of Egyptian-related events topped the agendas of my conversations with writers, journalists and politicians.
Foremost among these, of course, was Egypt’s participation in the World Cup tournament. This was a natural conversation opener given that I am Egyptian and our national team was playing at the time. It was not always the most gratifying opener, though.
Jean-Marie Le Clézio, winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2008, expressed his surprise at the performance of the Egyptian team despite its inclusion of one of the world’s top goal-scorers, Mohamed Salah.
Another subject, which I was keen to discuss with my interlocutors, was the plan in progress to resolve the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, international interest in which increased following the recent visit to the region by President Donald Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser Jared Kushner and his adviser Jason Greenblatt.
That event also happened to coincide with my Parisian trip. As I am Egyptian, everyone I spoke with in Paris thought that I would have detailed knowledge about the so-called “Deal of the century”, which supposedly promises the magic solution to a crisis that has eluded a solution for over 70 years.
Questions regarding my opinion on the nature of that deal pursued me across town, even in my visit to a friend who holds a senior post in Quai d’Orsay.
The first I heard about that still secret plan was in 2012, at the time of Muslim Brotherhood rule in Egypt. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas made a sudden visit to Egypt to meet with former president Mohamed Morsi.
I arranged a meeting with Abbas the same day. He was greatly disturbed by reports he had heard concerning arrangements to create a Palestinian state in Gaza and to leave the occupied West Bank to Israel.
The parties involved were the Egyptian regime at the time, the Hamas government in Gaza, the Netanyahu government in Israel and Washington as sponsor.
The Palestinian president told me that the plan would require Egypt to give up a portion of the Sinai adjacent to Gaza in exchange for an equal amount of territory from the Negev desert in Israel.
He said that he told Morsi that he rejected the idea out of hand, thinking that this notification, which he made officially, would be sufficient to put paid to that scheme.
But Morsi took him by surprise. He told him that the Palestinian party to the plan— namely Hamas — had agreed after having received an assurance that it would govern the new state.
I, personally, was shocked by that information which no one else had heard yet at the time. Not even the Egyptian Foreign Ministry, as I would also learn, had any knowledge of the arrangements that were being handled exclusively at the executive level.
I mentioned the subject to one of our senior ambassadors. He was sceptical and decided to inquire with one of our mutual friends in the ministry at the time, then foreign minister Mohamed Kamel Amr, who told my ambassador friend that the matter had not come up at all at the Foreign Ministry.
My friend dismissed the subject as baseless only to be surprised, along with the rest of the world, by President Abbas’s public disclosure of the secret scheme approved by the former Egyptian president and officially rejected by the Palestinian government in Ramallah.
Apparently, some modifications have been introduced to that plan since that time. Moreover, just as one of the relevant foreign ministries — the Egyptian Foreign Ministry — had been kept out of the loop at that time, it appears that, today, the French Foreign Ministry has no knowledge about it.
In fact, there are indications that even the US State Department has not been privileged with detailed information, which explains why Trump’s son-in-law adviser is handling this matter instead of anyone in the State Department.
As for the modifications, these basically have to do with the notion of a Sinai-Negev territory trade which, I know, Egypt has rejected unequivocally. This has led the architects of the plan to investigate the possibility of using Jordanian land for the purpose.
This would be linked with the construction of a major international sea port for the new Palestinian state, creating a kind of Singapore on the Mediterranean.
The other part of the modifications focuses on the economic and developmental aspect, a crucial ingredient for marketing the plan. The new state in Gaza would become the hub of economic activity of an unprecedented scale there.
Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Qatar and Kuwait have stepped forward as financiers although, according to news reports, any Qatari input has been rejected by the other Gulf states which have pledged to foot the whole bill for the billions of dollars worth of reconstruction and infrastructural development needed for the major economic projects envisioned for the new state.
However, Kushner’s and Greenblatt’s visit to the region was far from as successful as they had hoped. The two US officials encountered opposition they had not expected from both Cairo and Amman, compelling them to state, after the visit, that their plan’s “odds for success are very low”.
Before this, President Mahmoud Abbas had reiterated his rejection of the plan. This elicited a curious response from Washington that indicated its determination to press ahead with the plan regardless of whether or not the Palestinian president agreed.
Should we expect another surprise announcement from Washington expressing its resolve to push through the “Deal of the century” over the heads of other concerned parties?
*A version of this article appears in print in the 5 July 2018 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under headline: Deal of the century