Al-Sisi and Bennett in Sharm El-Sheikh (photo: AFP)
President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi received Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett in Sharm El-Sheikh on Monday. The meeting, arranged last month during head of Egyptian General Intelligence Service Abbas Kamel’s visit to Jerusalem, is part of Egypt’s ongoing efforts to revive the Palestinian-Israeli peace process.
President Al-Sisi used the meeting to reaffirm Cairo’s support for peace within the framework of a two-state solution and relevant international resolutions, and underscored the importance of international support for Egypt’s reconstruction drive in Palestinian areas devastated during the last Israeli war against Gaza.
The Israeli prime minister described the meeting as “important and very good”, adding “we have created a foundation for a deep connection for the future.”
Cairo’s efforts have brought the Palestinian file to the forefront after a decade during which it was relegated to the back seat, a source who preferred to remain anonymous told Al-Ahram Weekly.
Recent weeks have witnessed multilateral action to reinvigorate the Palestinian-Israeli peace process. During Bennett’s visit to Washington in the last week of August, US President Joe Biden stressed that a two-state solution was “the only viable path” to a lasting resolution of the conflict. In the first week of September, Sharm El-Sheikh was the venue for a trilateral summit between President Al-Sisi, King Abdullah II of Jordan, and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas: their aim, “to work together to develop a vision for reactivating efforts to resume negotiations, and to work with brothers and partners to revive the peace process… on the basis of the two-state solution.”
The arrangements for the meeting between Al-Sisi and Bennett were finalised a week before the visit by an Israeli national security delegation to Egypt. According to Israeli reports and official statements, the Israeli delegation discussed a range of issues with Egyptian authorities, including the resumption of air traffic and the revival of Israeli tourism to Taba, the Palestinian question and the possibility of reviving the peace process, the East Mediterranean Gas Forum, and Egyptian-Israeli economic relations.
Egyptian sources stress that Cairo’s priorities are focused on peace-making, and have been lent impetus by Biden’s support. Egypt, they say, is keen to grasp new opportunities now that any prospects of implementing the deal of the century, proposed by the previous administration in Washington, have faded.
But is there any real chance of kick-starting peace talks?
Sources in Cairo say that while the deal of the century had little, if any chance, of injecting new life into a process that ground to a halt 14 years ago, prospects now hinge on the US and Israeli positions.
Since being elected Biden has repeatedly reiterated his commitment to a two-state solution and pledged to pursue all possible avenues to achieve it. There are, however, complicating factors. One was evidenced during Bennett’s visit to Washington when he forced Israel’s perspective on Iran onto the agenda. To Israel, this question outweighs reviving peace talks.
A second factor centres on Israel’s attempts to advance its plan for what it terms “economic peace in exchange for security”. Biden has indicated that his administration could work with Bennett on such a scheme until a clear initiative emerges to revive the peace process.
Israel Foreign Minister Yair Lapid has outlined Israel’s vision for changing the economic realities of Gaza. Speaking at Reichman University in Israel, Lapid said that a blend of international investment, Israeli-Palestinian cooperation and a quiescent Hamas could change the lives of ordinary inhabitants of Gaza for the better. “Political conditions — in Israel and in the Palestinian Authority — don’t allow for diplomatic progress at the moment, but in Gaza we can, and we should, act now,” he said.
Cairo sees the Israeli position as an attempt to stabilise the truce with Hamas while deferring matters relating to Israel’s relationship with the Palestinian Authority, something it rejects in both form and substance.
Israeli talk of economic peace is hardly new. It was promoted by Benjamin Netanyahu in 1996, and suggested again during the 2007-2013 tenure of former Palestinian prime minister Salam Fayyad. “This proposal was unacceptable to both the Egyptians and Palestinians, though it was dusted down and put on the table once again as part of the deal of the century proposed by Trump,” said the source.
Kick-starting the peace process, then, appears to be stuck in square one, with the central question whether or not Israel can commit to taking a courageous step towards the two-state solution. Observers in Cairo believe Bennett’s fragile coalition government will collapse if it makes so much as a gesture in this direction. They also believe that Bennett is loath to pursue a foreign policy course that would give his coalition partner and current foreign minister — Lapid will assume the premiership in two years in accordance with the coalition’s rotation deal — a chance to shine.
Current efforts are an attempt to pave the way for the peace process given the current absence of any common ground, says the anonymous Egyptian source.
Though chances of resuming the long-stalled Palestinian-Israeli peace process are slim, sources in Cairo believe that the meeting between Al-Sisi and Bennett did produce some positive results. They see encouraging signs of the possibility of transforming the Egyptian-mediated Gaza ceasefire into a durable truce, thereby averting a return to military escalation. They also believe some progress has been made on the prisoner exchange question and on clearing the way for the Gaza reconstruction drive that Egypt is overseeing in collaboration with the UN.
Mustafa Al-Barghouti, secretary-general of the Palestinian National Initiative, told the Weekly from Ramallah that the “recent flurry of activity, including the meeting in Sharm El-Sheikh, may contribute to solving some issues, including on the ceasefire and better treatment for Palestinian prisoners, but will have little impact on the peace process itself. The Israelis, says Al-Barghouti — and he includes not only Bennett and Lapid but the whole spectrum of elite Israeli society — are all right-leaning, and strong believers in what the deal of the century had to offer. “Current efforts may improve the situation regarding some issues,” he concludes, “but as far as the Palestinian cause goes, it is too early to talk about any breakthrough.”
*A version of this article appears in print in the 16 September, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly