INTERVIEW: Arab countries still have options: Former Foreign Minister Nabil Fahmy

Dina Ezzat , Wednesday 22 Feb 2017

While the change in the US administration has brought with it greater uncertainty, the Arabs, and Egypt especially, still have cards to play in addressing regional crises

Nabil Fahmy
File Photo: Egyptian Foreign Minister Nabil Fahmy speaks during an interview with Reuters at his office in Cairo, Nov. 2, 2013. He left the post in June 2014. (Photo: Reuters)

“There are still two paths for the Arab countries to pursue now that it seems highly unlikely that the new US administration will invest considerable effort in the peace process,” said Nabil Fahmy, Egypt's former foreign minister.

The first path, he argued, would be for the Arab states to “work on securing the legal basis of the peace process," to make sure that those foundations "are not undermined under assumed pretexts of realism."

The second path would be for Arab states to “pursue necessary legal action to confront the illegal Israeli action taken on territories occupied in 1967, including the illegal construction of settlements, and the illegal denial of construction permits to the Palestinians in territories defined” as part of the Palestinian Authority zone under the Oslo Accords.

Fahmy was talking to Ahram Online from his American University in Cairo office prior to the joint press conference of US President Donald Trump and Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu in Washington, where the US president all but announced the end of the two-state solution, suggesting alternative ideas to settle the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Fahmy had already predicted that Trump would put little effort into rekindling the long stalled Middle East peace process.

“I think there are no real chances for success of the two-state solution under the current Israeli government. I think Trump would not hesitate to break from what we call the basis of the peace process, and I would not be surprised if he pursued his plan to move the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. I hope I am mistaken, but this is how I see the situation,” Fahmy had said.

Speaking ahead of the Arab Summit that is due to convene in the Jordanian capital 28 March, Fahmy suggested that Arab countries should be considering a plan of legal action to remind Israel and the rest of the world that Palestinian and Arab rights cannot be dropped.

“There is so much to be done on the legal path starting from the pursuit of a wide boycott of products carrying the label of illegal Israeli settlements to the pursuit of action to secure international recognition of Palestinian rights,” he said. “And of course, the Palestinians have to present the summit with specific ideas for action,” he added.

Fahmy does not put blame over the gloomy prospects for a fair settlement to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict on the anticipated policies of Trump in the Middle East.

He also blames the Obama administration for failing to pursue a final settlement to the struggle, “not withstanding the efforts that US Secretary of State John Kerry made towards the end of Obama's term, especially his firm position on the grave impact of illegal Israeli settlement construction on occupied Palestinian territories.”

Moreover, Fahmy is willing to acknowledge that the political energy spent by Arab countries on internal issues, especially those related to waves of terrorism, and regional concerns, come at the expense of traditional political dedication to “what was always called the central Arab issue, namely the Palestinian cause."

Fahmy also acknowledged that the attention of the international community when it comes to the Middle East shifted clearly from the Arab-Israeli struggle to the more “inflammatory” situations in Libya, Syria, Iraq and Yemen.

“This is the way things are. It is certainly unfortunate, but still, when all is said and done, nobody could seriously understate the need to work to a final settlement of the Arab-Israeli struggle, which I think remains crucial to all Arab states,” Fahmy argued.

He added: “Even if all the problems of this part of the world are resolved and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was to left unresolved, absent the construction of a viable Palestinian state, then this region would still have to live with considerable instability and also with potential waves of terror, given that this case has always been used as a pretext by terrorists for their acts of violence.”

Fahmy said that it would be upon “all Arabs” to make sure that no matter the orientations of the new US administration, the Palestinian cause would not be allowed to be ignored.

Obviously, he added, some countries with a traditional stake in the matter, including Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia, would have to invest considerable diplomatic effort on this front, “including necessary contacts and talks with the US.”

Fahmy is not willing to predefine the possible diplomatic input that Egypt, in particular, could contribute. Nor is he willing to insist that Egypt’s political engagement would be necessary to start pursuing direct Palestinian-Israeli talks – something many in the Palestinian Authority are sceptical about given the lack of commitment of the current Israeli government to the peace process.

“I think that I would not be promoting the pursuit of Palestinian-Israeli direct talks in the current political situation. But of course these talks could happen, given that there are ideas to have them in Cairo, Moscow and possibly elsewhere,” Fahmy said.

However, the former top diplomat, who attended endless hours of Arab-Israeli negotiations throughout the years of the peace process since its onset on parallel tracks in the Madrid Peace Conference and Oslo in the early 1990s, does not believe prospects are good for direct talks with the Netanyahu government during the term of the Trump administration.

This is why he repeatedly underlines the need to pursue a legal path in standing up to Israeli intransigence.

Fahmy is also of the opinion that this is a moment to work on melting down the complexities of internal Palestinian squabbles, especially the Fatah-Hamas tug of war.

“Clearly, internal divisions are not helping the Palestinian situation,” he said.

However, Fahmy cautioned against going overboard in blaming internal Palestinian disagreement for the unfortunate condition of the Palestinian cause, because “the failure of the peace process that in fact was initiated in the wake of the 1967 War” cannot be blamed on Fatah-Hamas disagreement alone.

This said, Fahmy argued that a more solid Palestinian stance would make it more difficult for those who are trying to undermine the basis of a settlement to the Israel-Palestinian conflict.

He also said that Egypt should open channels of communication with all Palestinian parties, “and this includes Hamas that is currently running the situation in Gaza, on the eastern Egyptian borders, too."

In this context, he said that the recent visit of a high-level Hamas delegation to Cairo was in the interest of Egypt’s political involvement in the Palestinian file. “But, of course, we should not be exaggerating the impact of the visit on managing considerable different views” not just between Fattah and Hamas but also between Hamas and Egypt.

Meanwhile, Fahmy argued that no matter the minimal expectations that Arabs have of the Trump administration on the peace process, dialogue should continue with those who have a clear appreciation of international affairs, including the US secretaries of defense and state and also the director of the CIA.

Fahmy, who spoke after the resignation of Trump’s national security advisor, Michael Flynn, who was known to have direct and close contacts with some of the leaders of the region, including President Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, said that the Trump administration was still in the making, but already there are obvious interlocutors.

There are too, he added, obvious parameters to the foreign policy of Trump, “as have been indicated by his campaigning and inauguration statements, which should not be overlooked.”

According to Fahmy, a clear parameter of US foreign relations in the Trump era is containment of Iran. “I am not saying and I am not seeing Trump move to annul the nuclear agreement with Iran, but I am saying that I think he will be acting to make sure that Iran comes under harsher scrutiny.”

Another parameter of Trump’s foreign policy outlook, as judged by Fahmy, is the “expectation” on the part of the new US president that US “allies and friends in Europe and the Middle East” will put more effort into consolidating their partnership with the US.

For example, Fahmy said, Trump would be “counting on” Egypt to be a centrepoint in efforts to resolve the crisis in Libya.

“Of course, in all cases the situation in Libya is critical to the interests of Egypt that has recently developed its take on the matter, from the immediate handling the crucial western border with Egypt to the promotion of a possible political deal among Libyan players, upon the basis of the Skhirat agreement and with an eye to maintain the territorial integrity of Libya and to combat the radical militant groups that have been active on parts of the Libyan territory.”

Along with other regional and international partners, Fahmy said, Egypt should continue to pursue a settlement in Libya that could allow for the consolidation of the national Libyan army — “and an end to the embargo imposed on its armament” — and police.

“Clearly, the success of these efforts require serious support from the US, Europe and also Russia.”

Equally, Fahmy said, Egypt would need to pursue open and candid talks with the US administration, among other world partners, on the management of the crisis in Syria.

“Syria is particularly crucial when it comes to defining the identity of the entire Middle East and whether it would be a predominantly Arab region that allows for the fair integration of other ethnicities or whether it would be a predominantly Middle Eastern sphere to which Arabs would be party,” Fahmy argued.

He added that for Syria's territorial unity to be maintained a fair political agreement would have to be reached, not just under an international umbrella but also with direct Arab input, because “clearly there are other players in and out of the region who would be working in the pursuit of other options for the future of Syria.”

Fahmy argued that the main international, particularly European and American, concern on Syria is related to the containment of the refugees crisis. “But obviously, the issue of Syrian refugees is also of concern to some of the countries of the region, including Arab countries,” he said.

It is therefore in the interest of Arab countries to try to mainstream their views on managing the Syrian crisis to avoid a situation where the future of Syria is essentially handled by Russian-American and Turkish-Iranian talks, he argued.

“We have all followed the nature of the role that Russia, for example, played in the Astana meetings on Syria,” Fahmy said in reference to limited Arab influence on the meeting.

He added that it is “stating the obvious" to say that the final deal on Syria would have a "wide impact on the situation across Iraq and other neighbouring countries.”

According to Fahmy, it is clear that along with the challenges of managing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, there are other pressing regional matters that require careful and prompt handling.

Egypt, Fahmy insisted, cannot afford but to be central to the management of regional crises. This, he added, would require not just the pursuit of a constructive and realistic dialogue with the US, but also closer rapport between Cairo and leading Arab capitals.

“Positive talks should not mean that any side would have to compromise their basic interests, but it means that all issues would be subject to a candid discussion,” Fahmy said.

He added that Egypt is well placed to be at the forefront of such talks as part of “its central regional role” which has always been a great foreign policy asset and clear factor in the calculations of Egyptian-American relations since the 1970s.

“After a pause, Egypt has been reassuming this role and now is the time to move forward to make sure that Cairo becomes an indispensible partner in the management of all regional crises, starting with the core issue: the Palestinian cause, which might not be given due attention but should never be allowed to collapse altogether,” Fahmy concluded.

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