After 11 days of the unrelenting bombardment of buildings, schools, hospitals and roads, the Israeli aggression against the Gaza Strip came to an end on 21 May. Egypt succeeded in pushing the Israelis and Hamas to accept a ceasefire agreement in coordination with the United Nations, the United States, Qatar and other regional powers.
In his first telephone conversation with President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi since he was sworn in on 20 January this year, US President Joe Biden congratulated him on the efforts made to reach the ceasefire agreement, and the two leaders committed themselves to working together in the near future to secure peace between the Palestinians and Israelis. On 20 May, Biden expressed his “sincere gratitude” to President Al-Sisi and to the senior Egyptian officials who had “played a critical role in bringing about the ceasefire through diplomacy” in a statement to the press corps at the White House.
At the time of writing, two Egyptian delegations have been separately negotiating with the Israelis and the Palestinians the necessary measures to consolidate the ceasefire and to begin reconstruction efforts in the Gaza Strip, which has seen widespread devastation. It has been reported that 160 Israeli fighter bombers took part in the wanton destruction in Gaza.
Once the two sides honour their respective commitments to respect the ceasefire, the major and most challenging question is where do we go from here. Undoubtedly, no one wants to see a military confrontation, fiercer and more destructive than the one we witnessed this month, to flare up again, although the two protagonists have vowed to fight each other once again should the other party break the ceasefire.
The first priority is the introduction of much-needed humanitarian assistance to Gaza. Next comes the rebuilding of hospitals, schools and houses. Biden said that the US is “committed to working with the United Nations and other international stakeholders” to provide rapid humanitarian assistance and to marshal international support for the people of Gaza and the reconstruction efforts. He said that the US would do this with the Palestinian Authority (PA) and not through Hamas, however, and in a “manner that does not permit Hamas to simply restock its military arsenal.”
Egypt for its part is looking beyond the rebuilding and reconstruction phase after the ceasefire. How, when, and under what conditions will the international community help in launching peace negotiations between the Palestinians and Israelis?
The world has come to realise that there is no way forward except by striving for a negotiated solution to the Palestinian question. To think that it is possible to ignore the plight of the Palestinians and to put their deprivation of their national right to a state of their own on the back burner for a long period of time is no longer a viable option. This explains the Egyptian approach to the latest ceasefire agreement between the Palestinians and the Israelis. Egypt is looking beyond the present moment and is working with other allies and partners to relaunch the Palestinian-Israeli peace negotiations.
The members of the International Quartet, namely the US, Russia, the European Union and the UN, have all expressed a commitment to helping to encourage both the Palestinians and the Israelis to sit down again around the negotiating table. US Secretary of State Antony Blinken is expected next week in the Middle East to discuss peace prospects and reconstruction efforts in Gaza with regional leaders.
Last Thursday, Biden stressed that the Palestinians and Israelis deserve to live “safely and securely” and that both peoples are entitled to freedom, prosperity and democracy. He added that the US government would pursue quiet and “relentless” diplomacy to achieve these goals. Previously he had committed the US to working towards the two-state solution.
White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said on 21 May that the US administration would move on three fronts in the coming months regarding the security of Israel, playing a constructive role in the rebuilding of Gaza and continuing to engage in diplomacy with regional leaders about how to move forward.
The road ahead will not be easy. Israel has no government, and the prospect of holding a fifth set of elections in the country is not to be discarded. The Palestinians are still incapable of forming a unity government that will speak for all Palestinians in the Gaza Strip as well as on the West Bank.
Extremists on both sides will not hesitate to sabotage any serious international effort to relaunch the peace negotiations, particularly the settlers and the political parties of the far-right in Israel. It also remains to be seen how strongly committed the Biden administration is to the two-state solution. Is it ready to expend political capital in the search for peace between the Palestinians and the Israelis? And if yes, when?
The consensus is that the US administration would prefer, at least for the time being, to work with leaders in the region to help restart the peace negotiations between the Palestinians and Israelis. It would favour a strategy of leading from behind, especially if Benjamin Netanyahu remains in office as prime minister of Israel.
In the meantime, a more active US role within the International Quartet is needed to prepare the ground for a possible resumption of peace talks, since these will hardly take off or succeed without serious US involvement.
*The writer is former assistant foreign minister.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 27 May, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly