The departure of US President Donald Trump and the likely demise of the so-called Deal of a Century as a framework to resolve the Palestinian-Israeli conflict has renewed hopes for more democratic management of the Palestinian-Israeli peace process and for Palestinian-Palestinian reconciliation after a 13-year rupture.
Cairo has been one of the key players in the drive to generate momentum for the peace process. Towards this end President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi visited Jordan this week to promote coordination and joint action with Amman. In an effort to re-order the Palestinian front a meeting between Egyptian, Jordanian and Palestinian intelligence chiefs was held at the same time as Al-Sisi’s visit to Jordan and the recent announcement that Palestinian general elections will be held in May further reinforces hopes that significant movement is afoot. The peace quartet that Egypt formed with Jordan, France and Germany on the fringes of the Munich Security Conference last year is also a cause for optimism. The quartet held its first meeting in Amman in September and its second in Cairo two weeks ago.
An informed source told Al-Ahram Weekly that this three-track movement aims to resume the negotiating process and Cairo has been working on all three tracks in tandem.
Last month Cairo hosted representatives of the Palestinian factions in order to kick-start the resumption of the reconciliation process preparatory to the envisioned general elections. A possible reshuffle of the Hamas political bureau may help in this regard.
Former Palestinian minister Hassan Asfour said that now that Egypt has revived its regional role Cairo has been moving forward on multiple fronts, as shown by the creation of the East Mediterranean Gas Forum and the above-mentioned Arab-European quartet.
Major General Mohamed Ibrahim, deputy director of the Egyptian Centre for Strategic Thought and Studies and formerly a key official involved in the file, agrees that Egypt has been working to build the momentum needed to overcome past obstacles and inject fresh dynamism in the process. He added that Egypt and Jordan will spearhead Arab efforts to promote a settlement and that the Egyptian president and the Jordanian King saw eye to eye on all matters of mutual concern in their talks which occurred the day after the meeting between the Egyptian and Jordanian intelligence chiefs with PA President Abu Mazen in Ramallah.
“Egyptian and Jordanian support for the Palestinian cause will have positive results in the near future,” Ibrahim said. “Egypt and Jordan view the Palestinian cause as a national security matter and fully agree on the need to apply the two-state solution as a framework for the peace process.” The two-state solution calls for the creation of an independent Palestinian state in the pre-1967 borders with its capital in East Jerusalem.
Observers predict that results of the current Egyptian-Jordanian drive will appear by summer. By then new US President Joe Biden’s position on the issues will be clear and the dust from Israeli and Palestinian elections will have settled if they occur, as hoped, in May.
Said Okasha, an expert on Israeli affairs at Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies, told the Weekly that Cairo and Amman fully intend to contain the fallout from the Trump legacy on Palestinian cause.
“Implementation of the Deal of the Century would have come at Jordan’s expense and it is hard to imagine Palestinians accepting a state on less than 70 per cent of the West Bank that legitimises the Israeli settlements there. A broad front is needed, spearheaded by Jordan and Egypt, to overcome that proposal,” he said.
Okasha predicts that the forthcoming Israeli Knesset elections — the fourth in two years — will strengthen the Israeli right, giving it 70 to 72 seats in the Knesset. However, the right is itself sharply divided, even if current opinion polls suggest Benyamin Netanyahu will secure another term in office. His Likud Party’s main rival will be the New Hope Party led by Gideon Sa’ar which could win 17 seats, more than Benny Gantz’s Israel Resilience Party. According to the polls, the centre right Yesh Atid could win 15 seats, while the historic Labour Party may disappear altogether now that its leader Amir Peretz has announced his retirement from politics.
Right wing seats in the Knesset will be occupied by an array of ultranationalists and religious conservatives at a time when Biden will be addressing his administration’s position on Iran as well as, perhaps, the Palestinian-Israeli peace process. It is not surprising, therefore, the Israeli right would want to usher Netanyahu back into power because of his success in mobilising Congress against actions he disapproves of, as he displayed regularly during the Obama era.
On the Palestinian front, says Okasha, Palestinian general elections “are an Egyptian-Jordanian pressure card to advance the unification of Palestinian opinion in advance of any negotiations”.
Hassan Asfour believes that there is an opportunity for what he characterises as “a possible solution” to the conflict. He cites a number of positive indicators such as growing acceptance of the concept of a land swap of around 5.5 to 7.5 per cent of West Bank territory with Israel as part of the final arrangements. There are also signs of Palestinian willingness to recognise the Temple of the Mount in Jerusalem.
“Now that Jordan a major stakeholder in the equation will impact on the negotiating process, especially as pertains to the status of Jerusalem, security and the Jordan Valley where Israel wants complete sovereignty over airspace. Ultimately, the feasible solution, given changes in Palestinian and Israeli attitudes, is neither Torah Zionist nor hard-line Arab nationalist as was the case in the past. The feasible opens the way for a point of convergence.”
In Asfour’s opinion, recent normalisation processes may also serve to advance the new peace drive. Above all, they put paid to the long sustained Israeli line that Israel was alone in a hostile Arab environment. He also believes that main challenge to holding Palestinian elections will come less from the lack of Palestinian resolve than from possible Israeli attempts to impede them. Israel has already made it clear that it opposes the participation of Palestinians in East Jerusalem in the elections.
Ibrahim agrees that plans to hold Palestinian elections will face obstacles and wonders whether the Palestinian factions will be able to overcome Israel’s pre-emptive conditions in preparatory talks on the electoral process.
If the elections do go ahead they will do so, says Ibrahim, for four reasons: the need to re-establish the legitimacy of Palestinian parliamentary and government agencies in order to set the Palestinian cause on track; the need to stimulate unity of cause and action on the domestic front after a decade and a half of stagnation and schism; the importance of asserting the ability of the Palestinian leadership to introduce genuine reforms into government institutions, and the absolute necessity to deliver a message to the international community that the Palestinian leadership has the resolve to promote democratisation when circumstances are conducive.
In short, Ibrahim believes clarification of the Biden administration’s stance on the peace process, the results of the Israeli elections and the results of the Palestinian elections if they happen, will “have a major impact on the Middle East peace process and on the prospects of propelling the political situation forward”.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 21 January, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.