Realising that any route to Palestinian reconciliation will remain blocked while current Palestinian leaders in Gaza and the West Bank remain in office, and that the chances for political negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians are nil under Israel’s current hardline government, Cairo has no choice but to adopt a strict crisis management approach to tensions on its volatile eastern border.
“We have tried hard over the past two years to get the Palestinian parties to agree to the minimum required for power sharing in Gaza and the West Bank and equally hard to convince Israel to give political talks with the Palestinians a chance, all to no avail,” said a well-informed political source.
“Now we have opted for a pragmatic approach, engaging all the parties — the resistance factions in Gaza, the Palestinian Authority (PA) and the Israelis — in the hope of avoiding the already very volatile situation exploding.”
The feared explosion could take the form of confrontations between Gaza-based Palestinian resistance movements, escalating tensions between Israelis and Palestinians in the West Bank where the PA’s ability to intervene is severely limited, or an outburst of anger across all the Palestinian territories, either in reaction to Israeli provocations or the failure of Palestinian leaders, both in Gaza and the West Bank, to live up to the expectations of the people.
“Our only choice has been to reduce our own expectations and work on a crisis management basis, at least in the short term,” said the source.
The situation is compounded, he added, by “the total lack of investment by the US administration in promoting Israeli-Palestinian peace” and its exclusive focus on Arab-Israeli normalisation and security coordination between Israel and its Arab neighbours.
Regional and Egyptian diplomatic sources say that while in Saudi Arabia this week, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and his six counterparts from the Gulf Cooperation Council were expected to discuss the chances of pushing the Abraham Accords forward, not least by allowing other Arab Gulf capitals to join Abu Dhabi and Manama, both of which are signed up to active normalisation with Israel. Blinken was expected to discuss Saudi demands to allow for some sort of normalisation between Riyadh and Israel. The Saudi wish list includes US-Saudi military, security and legal cooperation.
Blinken has already indicated that he is considering appointing a US envoy for the Abraham Accords, leading to speculation that Dan Shapiro, a former US ambassador to Israel, is one possible candidate for the job. Washington is also keen to formalise a security-normalisation grouping that includes Egypt, Jordan, Morocco, the UAE, and Bahrain alongside Israel.
None of this is great news for Cairo, where the authorities hold that a focus solely on normalisation and security cooperation will not further regional security and sustainable cooperation.
“Actually, it is an approach could backfire given it is bound to incite frustration on the Palestinian front,” said the Egyptian source. Which is why Cairo has shifted to an engagement track to avoid “any explosion and work on prompt containment should it happen”.
“It was very hard [last month] to secure a ceasefire between Jihad in Gaza and the Israelis. The ceasefire is volatile, and we have to keep our eyes open and to be ready for any possible eruption of violence.”
This week, Cairo hosted Palestinian Prime Minister Mohamed Ashtiah to discuss economic cooperation with the Ramallah-based PA. According to the source, however, a good part of the talks covered ways to reduce the tension in relations between Ramallah and Gaza. Should this prove successful, Cairo hopes to get some economic projects started, including operation of Gaza Marine, the natural gas field off the coast of Gaza Strip which can only begin working if there is collaboration between the PA, factions in Gaza, particularly Hamas, Israel and Egypt. According to the political source, “there is still a long way to go.”
Once online, the gas field will generate revenues for both the PA and Hamas while improving the provision of electricity in Gaza and possibly providing a fillip for improved economic conditions. “The better living conditions in Gaza are, the less the chances there are for a Gaza explosion,” noted the political source. Creating a shared interest between Gaza and Ramallah also allows for de facto corporation.
The same issue was on the agenda of talks Cairo held this week with two high-level Hamas and Jihad delegations, though according to the source it is too early to talk of any Hamas/Jihad agreement to work with the PA on the project. “We are at the very early stages and it is hard to see anything happening before next year,” he said.
What “little progress” was achieved during the talks concerned the Jihad/Hamas truce with Israel. Parallel talks were also conducted with Israel to complement the negotiations with the Palestinian factions.
“The formula that we are trying to work on is simple, no Israeli assassinations of Jihad and Hamas leaders and no rockets from Gaza into Israel,” the source told Al-Ahram Weekly.
Momentum in the discussions was, however, interrupted when an Egyptian conscript killed three Israeli soldiers on the Israeli side of the border in the early hours of Saturday.
On Tuesday, President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi received a phone call from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to discuss the incident, said Egyptian presidency spokesperson Ahmed Fahmi.
“It was a totally independent act. We do not suspect that there is anyone behind it,” said the source.
He confirmed that “things are under control between Egypt and Israel”, with both sides working together to investigate the incident and ensure there are no repeats. The issue, according to the source, will be “sorted out” within days.
“We have no conflict with Israel on containing the situation. We want our borders with Israel to be safe and trouble free and we want to continue working with Israel on securing less tension with the Palestinians to make sure that our borders with Gaza, too, are problem free.”
“Yes, ideally we want to work on a political, not just a security, process between the Israelis and the Palestinians but this is unlikely to be in the works for at least two years.”
* A version of this article appears in print in the 1 June, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.