Signalling a major change in its approach to the situation in the Gaza Strip, Egypt announced last month that it would contribute half a billion dollars to the reconstruction efforts in Gaza in the wake of the latest Israeli aggression, the fourth in the last 13 years. The unexpected move took everyone by surprise. While some people have welcomed it, many have raised questions about the reasons behind the decision.
The government explained that the money would go to Egyptian companies participating in the reconstruction of Gaza. On 4 June, the Egyptian papers in their print editions showed photographs of heavy earth-moving equipment driving into Gaza with Egyptian flags on them. This was a show of solidarity with the helpless Gazans, who have been suffering from the Israeli siege since 2007, and also a guarantee that Israel may think twice before targeting Gaza again. It also pointed to the houses and infrastructure that the Egyptian companies would rebuild and fix.
The popular reception given to the Egyptian companies on the part of the people of Gaza was warm and welcoming. Historically speaking, Egypt administered the Gaza Strip from 1948 to 1967.
The amount of money earmarked by Egypt for the reconstruction of Gaza means a more active role being played there in future regardless of the end result of the talks that Cairo will host soon between the Palestinian organisations and the Palestinian Authority (PA) with the aim of implementing previous agreements on inter-Palestinian reconciliation.
Last week, the director-general of Egypt’s General Intelligence Service, Abbas Kamel, travelled to Israel, the West Bank (Ramallah) and the Gaza Strip, where he held meetings with leaders and senior officials to work out the details of the reconstruction efforts in Gaza and the best possible coordination in this regard, with Egypt as the focal point of such coordination that will also cover international participation.
Both the US and the EU have announced that their contributions should be channelled through the PA and measures adopted to prevent Hamas from rebuilding its missile arsenal, for example.
Egyptian officials hope that the next round of reconciliation talks between the Palestinian organisations will lead to a Palestinian consensus that the time has come to carry out the previous accords, signed from 2007 onwards. Cairo believes that reconciliation and reconstruction should go hand-in-hand. After all, large donors like the EU have made it clear that they are ready to contribute large sums of money to rebuilding Gaza, only for it to be involved in a new cycle of violence once again.
This is a valid point, and the vicious circle of reconstruction followed by more destruction and human suffering in Gaza should come to an end. The ultimate responsibility for this rests on both the Palestinians and the Israelis. One objective of Kamel’s mission was precisely how to build on the ceasefire agreement of 22 May and to get the two sides to work together on a long-term truce.
From the Egyptian point of view, this truce, like the one that followed the 2014 Gaza war and lasted seven years, should be used to set in motion conditions that will allow for the resumption of peace talks between the Palestinians and the Israelis. Moreover, this Egyptian approach has been welcomed by the US Biden administration, and in his second telephone call with Egypt’s President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi on 24 May, Biden committed himself to peace.
It is noteworthy that the US administration has breathed new life into the two-state solution, which is a welcome and a significant step forward on the road towards security and peace. However, the responsibility for launching a serious and credible negotiating process is incumbent on the direct stakeholders. This is precisely what Egypt is trying to achieve – to prepare the ground for a possible resumption of peace negotiations between the PA and the next Israeli government.
Needless to say, senior Egyptian officials are under no illusions as to the prospects for this in the immediate future. The Israelis are still trying to form a stable government after four elections in two years, and speculation abounds in Israel that there still could be a fifth set of elections.
Even if the coalition government of Naftali Bennet, Mansour Abbas (an Israeli Islamist, however strange that description sounds), and Yair Lapid can muster a razor-thin majority of one in the Knesset (60+1 seats) when voting takes place next week, no one is sure that this government even once in place will be able to muster a stable pro-peace majority that can weather the political storms from the Israeli extreme-right and settlers movement and the religious parties if it signals its readiness to enter into peace talks with the Palestinians. This is also only if this unexpected coalition government can survive the vehement and unceasing attempts of outgoing Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu to scuttle it before it forms.
Cairo is aware of the great difficulties on the road ahead, but believes that persistent Egyptian efforts on both “fronts,” Israel and the Palestinians, should be continued with a view to pushing the two sides towards coexisting in security and peace in the future. The latest developments after the fourth Gaza war, a short one fortunately, have shown that Egypt could work effectively with the Palestinians and the Israelis to secure a fragile peace. It is looking forward to developing this fragile peace into a more solid and permanent one. In order to achieve this goal, which has eluded Israeli and Palestinian leaders over the past two decades, it needs strong US support.
In the meantime, it will concentrate its efforts on inter-Palestinian reconciliation and setting a new date for the Palestinian elections that were abruptly postponed in May by Chairman of the PA Mahmoud Abbas.
Egypt needs all the support it can muster from the international community, particularly US and European support to steer the region towards the two-state solution. I hate to say that time is not on the side of the peacemakers, but the window of opportunity that exists today will not remain open indefinitely. Extremists on both sides are committed to trying to keep the status quo, which Egypt rightly believes is not sustainable in the long term.
As Biden reaffirmed in his numerous telephone calls with the Israeli and Palestinian leaders during the latest Gaza war, the two-state solution is the only viable way to peace between the Palestinians and the Israelis. It is also the crux of the Egyptian approach to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.
*The writer is former assistant foreign minister.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 10 June, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly