The hawks gather

Dina Ezzat , Wednesday 23 Jun 2021

Cairo is keeping a close eye on the impact across the region of the election of Naftali Bennett in Israel and Ebrahim Raisi in Iran

Bennett; Raisi
Bennett; Raisi

“We are trying to come up with an arrangement but so far it has not been easy to do so. We have to continue trying.” This is how an Egyptian official characterised Cairo’s ongoing attempts to kick-start humanitarian assistance and the reconstruction of Gaza which suffered devastating damage during 11 days of Israeli aggression in May.

The official declined to share a timeline for the launch of the humanitarian/ reconstruction operation. “Not clear yet,” he said.

The situation, he explained, is complicated. On the one hand Israel, the donor community, and the Palestinian Authority (PA) refuse to allow Hamas access to any cash out of concern the money will be used to cement the combat readiness of the group, while on the other hand Hamas is “not at all flexible” about a management sharing arrangement. “They feel a lot more empowered since the conflict and feel a number of regional developments are going their way. This is making them more inflexible,” argued the official.

He spoke shortly after Yehia Senwar, the chief of Hamas in Gaza, told reporters on Monday that his talks with UN Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process Tor Wennseland had failed to resolve the problem of allowing Hamas access to Qatari funding and warned that Hamas would react to Israel’s continued financial embargo.

According to the Egyptian official, a resumption of hostilities along the lines of last month is “quite unlikely now — or at least we hope it is quite unlikely.” He did, however, add a note of caution, warning that some recent regional changes “could threaten the ceasefire”.

One change the official is worried about is the hawkish profile of the new Israeli government which was sworn in last week, ending 12 years of rule by Likud leader Benjamin Netanyhau.

“We don’t think that Naftali Bennett [the new Israeli PM] would want to start a military confrontation with Hamas… at least not right away,” the official said. He added, however, that it would be naïve to exclude the possibility of Bennett wanting to show the Israeli public that he is a hawk, not a dove.

“Bennett’s eyes are certainly on the settler community,” the official said, “and he would not want to come across as less tough on Hamas than Netanyahu.”

It is also unclear how the new political dispensation in Iran will affect the situation. President-elect Ebrahim Raisi, another hawk, may wish to send Israel, its allies in the Arab world and elsewhere, a message through Hamas.

Hamas, points out the official, makes no secret of the support it receives from Iran. After the last war Hamas leaders, including political bureau chief Ismail Hanniyeh and Senwar, openly expressed gratitude to Iran for the help it had extended to the group.

Gaza, the source says, is “one of a number of places” Egypt is closely monitoring to see the impact of the new Iranian president. Lebanon is another.

Lebanon is “on the edge of an unprecedented socio-economic crisis” and, says the source, “all scenarios are possible.”

With a new Iranian president assuming power, many are wondering whether Tehran will encourage Hizbullah to act on the ground and establish itself as Lebanon’s kingmaker.

Cairo-based European diplomats share Cairo’s concerns, though more on the Lebanon than the Gaza front. They are also worried about Iraq and Syria, two other regional fronts where Iran, under Raisi, may wish to act.

Both countries are of concern to Egyptian foreign policy makers. For two years Egypt, in coordination with Jordan, perhaps its closest Arab ally now, has been trying to balance Gulf influence in the Mashriq by establishing a political consultation mechanism with Iraq and on Syria.

Egypt and Jordan are both mindful of American reluctance to see Bashar Al-Assad’s government reintegrated into the collective Arab regime. According to another Egyptian official, however, this has not kept Egypt from undertaking some reach-out exercises.

“We have been cautious because the situation in Syria is very complex, but we have also been realistic. Everybody knows that Bashar is going to be around for the foreseeable future,” he said.

Cairo is still trying to assess the possible impact of the Raisi presidency on Iraq and Syria, both countries in which Iran has a strong military presence.

Meanwhile, Egyptian officials say Cairo is unlikely to change its own policy towards Iran. Relations, they say, will remain for the most part where they have been for decades now, with no full diplomatic ties and no high levels of tension.

Overall, Egyptian officials are hopeful that with the resumption of the nuclear agreement between Iran and the West Tehran will choose to act “wisely” across the region, though they say it is too early to make a thorough assessment.

Certainly, Egypt hopes Iran will avoid any escalation with Saudi Arabia and other Arab Gulf states. Egyptian officials say there is considerable unease in many Arab Gulf capitals, including Abu Dhabi and Riyadh, over Iranian regional policies under Raisi.

The same officials say Cairo has been closely following the talks and back channels that the Emiratis and Saudis have had with Iran in recent months and hope they will lead to a reduction in tensions around the Gulf. If any Arab Gulf country is faced with a serious security challenge, it would be very difficult for Egypt to look the other way.

The last thing that Egypt wants now is tension in the Gulf, the Mashriq, or Gaza. Cairo already has its hands full with the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam crisis, the situation in Libya, and emerging security hazards across the Sahel and Sahara to the Horn of Africa, and is hoping/working for some quiet on the eastern front.

Tellingly, in the last few days President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi sent his top aide Abbas Kamel, head of the General Intelligence Service, consecutively to Libya, Sudan, and Chad.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 24 June, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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