Cairo is set to host a fresh round of Palestinian talks on Saturday which it hopes will reduce the 15-year long tensions between Hamas, which has ruled Gaza since the last legislative elections in 2006, and the Fatah-dominated Palestinian Authority (PA) which rules the West Bank.
Preparations for the new round of inter-Palestinian talks have not been easy, say Egyptian officials. The gap between the leaders of Hamas and Fatah remains wide: they disagree not just about the management of the situation in the coming weeks, following Israel’s devastating attack on Gaza, but also have different visions of political decision-making on the path towards Palestinian statehood.
The meeting comes at a time when Egypt has invested heavily in securing a ceasefire to the 11 days of hostilities prompted by Israeli attempts to confiscate the homes of Palestinians in Jerusalem and hand them over to Israeli settlers. After having secured the ceasefire in the third week of May, Egypt has been working hard to strengthen the truce and launch a reconstruction process to help repair the damage to Gaza.
Close to 250 Palestinians, including 100 women and children, lost their lives, and 70,000 Palestinians in Gaza are homeless following the Israeli attacks.
Late last week Egypt sent construction materials and equipment to start the rebuilding process in Gaza. President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi has pledged $500 million to this end, and Cairo has been coordinating closely with Hamas, the PA and Israel to avoid any delays to beginning the Egyptian reconstruction plan.
“We are committed to reaching out to Gaza in every way we can to help with the reconstruction and believe that despite the differences between the factions they have no choice but to agree on a mechanism out of which a national agenda can emerge. They don’t have to agree on every detail but there needs to be a consensus on basics if they are to move forward and push the Palestinian cause back on the table,” said one official.
He added that recent developments have brought the Palestinian issue close to the centre of international attention and Cairo is committed to working with the Palestinians and concerned Arab countries to keep the world’s attention focused on resolving the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.
“It is not the easiest time to be doing this. The world has hardly thought about Palestine during the past 10 years, and there is a new US administration for whom the Middle East is not a top priority. True, Washington’s position is now more aligned to a two-state solution than was the case under Trump, but favouring a two-state solution and being willing to get involved are different things,” added the official.
While talking to the Palestinians and getting them to talk to one another, Cairo has constantly stressed the importance of restarting some kind of political process. Easier said than done, concede Egyptian officials, especially given political developments in Israel and the possible end of Benjamin Netanyahu’s 12-year rule as prime minister.
Despite the obstacles, Cairo is unwilling to wait, fearing that once the world moves beyond the immediate aftermath of the latest conflict it will be less willing to try and pick up the pieces of the long-stalled peace talks.
Cairo has notified its regional and international allies that it is willing to host preparatory talks between the PA and Israel when both sides are ready.
According to Cairo-based Western diplomatic sources, despite limited expectations of serious peace talks convening given the depth of the Palestinian splits and Israel’s own political crises, there is an appetite to get some form of communication started, even if it is at a low level to begin with.
“While nobody is expecting Palestinian and Israeli leaders to sit together and start discussing how to implement a two-state solution, what we have to do is end the freeze that the peace talks have been in,” commented one Cairo-based European diplomat.
In a webinar on prospects for the Palestinian cause, hosted last Thursday by the Kemet Boutros Ghali Foundation, former Palestinian minister Nabil Amr said that now is the time for Palestinians to benefit from the “authorisation that the world has given Egypt” to help rescue the situation.
For Egypt to have any hope of delivering a political process, Amr argued, there has to be the beginning of an end to Palestinian division. And that, he continued, means that elections have to be incorporated in the Palestinian political roadmap.
Palestinians were supposed to hold their first general elections since 2006 in June. An Israeli decision to prohibit elections in Jerusalem, however, prompted their suspension by PA leader Mahmoud Abbas.
Hamas, along with other Palestinian factions, criticised the decision, saying its purpose was to save Abbas and other old-guard Fatah figures from defeat not just in Gaza but elsewhere in the Palestinian territories.
According to Amr, Palestinian elections are unlikely to result in a landslide victory for any faction. “With an expected 36 electoral lists covering the political spectrum it is hard to think of any one faction securing an overwhelming majority of votes,” he said.
Egyptian officials say the holding of elections is one of the issues the two Egyptian delegations shuttling between Cairo, Gaza, and Ramallah have been trying to fix.
Addressing the webinar, former foreign minister Nabil Fahmi stressed that it is important, to capitalise on the attention currently being paid to the Palestinian cause. “There is an awareness [now] in the international community that the current Palestinian-Israeli situation cannot be left the way it is for long,” he said. He added that despite the complexities of the situation on the Palestinian, Israeli, and regional fronts, there has to be prompt political action “to consolidate the basis of the political process”.
Former Lebanese foreign minister Nassif Hetti argued for the Arab Peace Initiative to be promoted to the international community as a solid base for any possible negotiation process.
According to Amr Moussa, a former foreign minister of Egypt and former secretary-general of the Arab League, the first step for any successful initiative must be Palestinian reconciliation.
“Nothing can move forward if Palestinian political leaders cannot agree to find a way to work together and to manage their differences,” he said.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 10 June, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly