Next week Cairo is hoping to facilitate a fresh round of talks with Palestinian leaders that will push the reconciliation process forward.
According to an Egyptian government official, the talks are likely to begin with a bilateral round of discussions with Hamas leaders before moving on to include representatives from Fatah.
Last week a session involving Fatah and Hamas leaders failed to make any advances, according to Egyptian officials and Palestinian sources from both sides.
According to Fatah sources, Hamas bears responsibility for the lack of progress because of its backtracking on understandings reached in earlier talks, some hosted in Cairo over the past two years and others elsewhere, including in Istanbul. The problem, says Fatah, is that Hamas is now unwilling to accept the fact that the Palestinian Authority (PA) is the leader of the Palestinian people, and that there is no split in leadership between Ramallah — the base of the Fatah-dominated PA since the 1993 Oslo Accords — and Gaza, which was taken over by Hamas and other resistance movements in 2007.
“Hamas now wants to backtrack on an earlier agreement to conduct legislative and National Council elections in advance of presidential elections. But we cannot keep retreating from commitments already made. To do so means going endlessly round and round in circles,” said a Fatah source.
Hamas, meanwhile, argues that the focus now should not be on hierarchy, given the depth of the ordeal through which Palestinians are passing, but on building “unity of cause”. And it is precisely that unity, says the Hamas source, that has been compromised by the PA’s decision to resume security cooperation with Israel at a time when the Israeli government is doing everything in its power to undermine the lives of Palestinians, particularly in the besieged Gaza Strip.
Egyptian officials, though, contest it was “only reasonable” for the PA to reverse its decision to suspend security coordination with Israel. The PA needs to be pragmatic, argued one Egyptian official. He pointed out that the partial suspension of security cooperation had allowed Israel to place greater restrictions on Palestinians’ access to travel, work and financial assistance, in return for which neither the PA nor the Palestinian people gained anything.
In recent days, the same Egyptian official said, Cairo has been trying to get Hamas to move forward and focus more on reconciliation.
The impression among Cairo officials, one which is partially shared in Ramallah according to the Fatah source, is that some regional capitals have been pressuring Hamas to step back from its earlier commitments.
Cairo accuses Ankara and Tehran of “encouraging” Hamas “to change its mind”. Ankara, Egyptian officials say, is doing so because it resents the fact that reconciliation talks are taking place in Egypt rather than in Turkey, while Tehran is attempting to use the situation, and its Hamas allies, to send messages to Israel in the wake of Israel’s own touting of its close coordination with the UAE and Saudi Arabia, and its lobbying of the new Biden administration against Iran.
“With a new US administration arriving that is likely to adopt a different approach to Iran than its predecessor, the tug of war could last for weeks, or even months,” said the Egyptian official. He adds, however, that “the new US administration may well be open to what most Palestinian political factions will argue is a fairer approach to the Palestinian cause, making it imperative that the PA acts rationally and helps the incoming Biden Administration actually help the Palestinians.”
According to the Fatah source, the decision of PA/Fatah leader Mahmoud Abbas to resume security cooperation with Israel was taken following “early consultations” with the Biden foreign policy team which had indicated it might be willing to resume talks on a two-state solution rather than press forward with Trump’s proposed peace deal which has been rejected by every Palestinian faction.
It would not help the Palestinians win over Biden, says the source, for the PA to allow Israel to continue to use the claims of “security threats” to justify its aggression against Palestinians.
According to the same source, “it would be wise” for all Palestinians today to come to terms with the fact that they are “practically on their own — with hardly any Arab support”.
“Arab countries are practically tripping over one another to come to an arrangement with Israel and what started in the autumn is not going to end. There is a new reality on the ground and we have to deal with it.”
Earlier this month, in the wake of the results of the US elections, Abbas decided to show a more accommodating approach towards the decision of some Arab Gulf countries to establish ties and move forward towards full normalisation with Israel.
In the hope of turning a new page Abbas called for an Arab meeting to discuss the “overall situation”, including normalisation moves and the challenges facing the Palestinian cause, not least Israel’s continuing expansion of illegal settlements expansions and annexation of occupied Palestinian land.
The request fell on deaf ears. According to the Egyptian source, there is no appetite in the countries concerned to meet with the Palestinians to discuss relations with Israel: rather, they are convinced that Iran will use its influence with some Palestinian factions to pressure Israel and gain negotiating points with the Biden administration as it prepares for “possibly a new nuclear deal with Iran”.
While Cairo acknowledges that it is impossible to separate the Palestinian file from the machinations of “many regional players” to position themselves favourably in front of the Biden administration as they seek to reverse losses or secure gains made under the Trump administration, Egypt is keen to get the Palestinians to see that the Biden administration could offer new opportunities for the Palestinian cause.
The incoming administration, the Egyptian official said, will have neither the ability nor the desire to undo the favours Trump has granted Israel. Nor will it have as much influence over Israel as its predecessor. Yet, it still might be able to help end the long stagnation in which the Palestinian cause has been mired.
Cairo, says the official, is planning a round of talks with concerned partners, especially Amman, Berlin and Paris, in an attempt to launch a new call for Palestinian-Israeli negotiations, and hopes to do so before Christmas.
He cautions that it will be months before any meetings can happen, and perhaps longer if there is a new round of elections in Israel. It is time Cairo wants to use to help put the Palestinian house in order and prep the Palestinians for a possible resumption of peace talks.
Meanwhile, informed Egyptian sources said Tuesday that Palestinian leader Abbas is expected in Cairo late this month for talks with President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 26 November, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly