This week’s meeting between Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi and his Palestinian counterpart Mahmoud Abbas on the sidelines of the Sharm El-Sheikh World Youth Forum was the first in a long time.
For close to a year the two presidents have avoided direct encounters though there have been a few phone conversations, some of them announced. They did not meet on the sidelines of the UNGA late last September though both were present.
The falloff in high level Egyptian-Palestinian consultations is a result, say sources on both sides, of profound differences over the path forward towards inter-factional Palestinian reconciliation and the management of relations with Israel either in relation to a ceasefire over Gaza or vis-à-vis peace talks under the peace plan US President Donald Trump has long been promising.
The fact a meeting happened at all is being interpreted in different ways.
In Cairo an Egyptian official argued that Abbas is coming to realise that he has isolated himself by refusing all initiatives offered to improve relations between the Palestinian Authority in Ramallah and Hamas which has controlled Gaza for over 10 years.
Speaking from Ramallah, a source close to Abbas argued that the Palestinian leader’s meeting with Al-Sisi was intended as a gesture of good will following reassurances offered by a visiting Egyptian delegation that Cairo’s reconciliation efforts are not designed to consolidate the current status-quo of total separation between Gaza and Ramallah.
“We received clear assurances, and an invitation for [Abbas] to visit Egypt and participate in the Youth Conference. We are very keen on our relations with Egypt and are keen to keep consultations going, both when we agree and when we see things differently,” he said.
Hamas and Islamic Jihad sources in Gaza — an Egyptian delegation was also in the Strip last week — say Abbas agreed to meet with Al-Sisi because he does not want to be portrayed as the person unilaterally refusing Egyptian ideas designed to ease tensions in Gaza.
“What Egypt is proposing is a set of ideas to allow for two things: a relatively long ceasefire between Gaza and Israel and a possible reconciliation between Palestinian factions in Gaza and the Fatah-controlled PA under Abbas,” said a Hamas source.
He added the Egyptian delegation in Gaza had promised Cairo would not follow Abbas in trying to link the two, “because nobody wants an explosion in Gaza — certainly we don’t, because it is not in the interest of our people, and clearly Egypt does not want it, for obvious reasons of proximity”.
According to the Hamas source there is “agreement amongst factions in Gaza on two basic demands that Egyptian officials say were subject to discussions between President Al-Sisi and President Abbas”.
The first involves better energy supplies for Gaza, including the oil necessary to operate its electricity grid. The second covers the payment of salaries for civil servants working in Gaza under Hamas. These, he adds, are “firm demands” on which any reconciliation must be based.
A Jihad source, speaking on Monday, following the Sisi-Abbas meeting in Sharm El-Sheikh, said Gaza’s factions were still waiting for details from Cairo.
“We cannot say yet how things will progress along the reconciliation track. We are not certain Abbas will be willing to compromise over the demand to assume complete control in Gaza.
The messages we have been getting, directly from the PA and through the Egyptian delegation, is that the PA still hopes to take full control of the administration in Gaza rather than opt for power-sharing.
It is too early to talk of a breakthrough and even if Abbas was going to accommodate some of the ideas that the Egyptian president will have proposed he is unlikely to far enough, and certainly not right away.”
Hamas and Jihad sources say they are more hopeful about a breakthrough in the ceasefire deal that Egypt has been working on for over a year.
Neither would they confirm that they will comply with Israeli demands their arms be placed under the control of the Egyptian authorities to avert any possible attacks against Israel from Gaza.
Both, however, agreed that the Palestinian factions in Gaza were willing to accept Egypt as a moderator of the ceasefire.
Hamas and Jihad leaders say they are hopeful a deal on the ceasefire can be concluded by the end of the year.
The Egyptian official agreed. “We now have an understanding with Hamas and Israel on a very detailed paper including the proximity with the border with Israel any Palestinian protests in Gaza reach, early warnings that Israel should share with us and with Hamas of any possible security alerts and the operations of the crossing points between Gaza and Israel and Gaza and Egypt.”
The Egyptian source would neither confirm nor deny claims by Hamas and Jihad sources that Egypt would also facilitate access to funds that Qatar, Egypt’s regional adversary, has promised the Palestinian factions.
Hamas and Jihad sources say the ceasefire, which is likely to be agreed on for a period of two years, is essential given there is no major Palestinian-Israeli peace deal in sight.
A well-informed regional diplomatic source agrees that it is more realistic to speak of a possible durable ceasefire “supported by the US and sponsored by Egypt” than to talk of a final Palestinian-Israeli peace deal.
The PA source, for his part, insists that “if the US is going to offer what Trump has said it will then there is nothing to discuss since what the Americans are proposing is Palestinian acceptance of the Israeli occupation of their territories.”
Ahmed Kamel, an analyst at Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies, says the difficulties of reconciliation extend beyond financial issues to embrace security concerns.
“The PA insists that it should assume the full policing of Gaza and control of all crossings connecting Gaza to Israel and Egypt. Hamas is refusing to fully integrate its security arms into PA forces.”
Another problem, says Kamel, centres on Hamas demands to quickly hold elections for a new legislative council in Gaza and Ramallah and, by extension, re-jig the Palestinian political structure. “This is not something that Abbas will agree to easily because it potentially challenges his political clout.”
Kamel believes Abbas will be more forthcoming on Hamas demands that could improve the humanitarian situation in Gaza but is likely to remain loath to move forward to a full reconciliation deal based on either the details Egypt proposed in October last year, or in a more narrowly focused paper offered by Cairo mediators in July this year.
Washington-based political analyst Andrew Miller says without a durable and solid ceasefire an explosion in Gaza cannot be ruled out.
“It is not a viable situation in Gaza and the Egyptian government is certainly trying to stop the next war which could be, for all we know, around the corner,” Miller says. He added that even with a ceasefire things could suddenly break down.
An Egypt sponsored ceasefire between Hamas and Israel, he argues, is far more likely to happen in the next weeks or months than a Palestinian reconciliation.
“Abbas will not go back to Gaza unless he has a full compliance from Hamas and Hamas will not give its weapons to Abbas,” he says.
Meanwhile, Miller advises no one to hold their breath waiting for a final peace deal between Israel and the Palestinians.
“Nobody has seen a full text of the proposed Trump deal but based on everything we know about it I’d argue it is unlikely the deal will meet basic Palestinian demands for statehood and therefore will not be acceptable,” he argued.
Miller is sceptical about the ability of international or regional pressure to make Abbas agree to a deal that falls well short of what the Palestinians have been offered in the past.
For their part, Cairo officials say it is better not to prejudge Trump’s proposals for they may offer a basis that can be worked on. And it is this, they add, that has formed the constant advice Al-Sisi has been offering Abbas.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 8 November, 2018 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: Looking for a breakthrough