Foregrounding Palestine

Dina Ezzat , Wednesday 1 Jun 2022

Ahead of US President Joe Biden’s visit to Israel later this month Cairo is working hard to warn of the dangers inherent in keeping the Palestinian issue on the backburner.

photo: AFP
photo: AFP


One hundred days since the beginning of the war in Ukraine and few if any observers expect it to be over any time soon. It is likely, say some, to drag on, possibly into next year. It is an assessment that has lead to concern in Arab capitals that other pressing issues, not least the plight of Palestinians, has been placed on the back burner indefinitely.

“As the Ukraine war continues, with no end in sight, the situation in Gaza and the Palestinian territories has been coming too close to the point of explosion, and few people are taking any notice,” said one Egyptian diplomat.

A Palestinian government official who spoke this week on condition of anonymity said that the Palestinian Authority (PA) is doing everything possible to encourage self-restraint in the West Bank and is sending clear messages to Hamas leaders in Gaza — “sometimes directly and at other times through Arab channels” — that they need to avoid pushing things to the point of confrontation with Israel.

“We know that Hamas is not looking for a new military confrontation but we cannot predict the possible reactions of Hamas to further Israeli provocation,” the PA official said.

He added that while the Israeli government of Naftali Bennett does not seem to want to pick a fight in Gaza, the tactics of the Israeli military are more unpredictable.

“We think that nothing is likely to happen in the next few weeks given the anticipated visit of the American president later this month but we don’t know what might happen beyond then,” he said.

He added that beyond the possibility of a new nuclear deal between the West and Iran little international attention is being paid to the Middle East.

“The world has almost forgotten the Palestinian Cause. Nobody talks about a political process. The most the world talks about is improving living conditions for Palestinians but the problem of Palestinians is a problem of occupation not of living conditions.”

According to the Egyptian diplomat, tensions in and around Jerusalem during recent weeks have served as a reminder to regional and international capitals that putting pressure on Israel to improve the living conditions of Palestinians is not good enough and something more has to be done to defuse the growing tensions. The world, he said, needs to take stock of the “remarkable show of anger and frustration that was demonstrated during the funeral of Sherine Abu Akleh”, the AlJazeera broadcaster shot dead last month while covering an Israeli military attack on the Palestinian territories.

“What we saw should remind everyone that an outbreak of anger is never far from the surface,” he said.

This week, all eyes were focused on the Israeli storming of Muslim quarters of Jerusalem by Israeli religious nationalists during the contentious annual flag march during which thousands of Israelis celebrate Israel’s capture of East Jerusalem in 1967. The Palestinian presidency said that Israel was “playing with fire” by allowing the march to go ahead while Hamas warned of the consequences of continued Israeli violations of Al-Aqsa.

Egypt issued a statement warning against any attempt to tamper with the Arab, Muslim and Christian identity of East Jerusalem, and according to the Egyptian diplomat, Cairo has been communicating with all “concerned interlocutors” in the Palestinian territories and Gaza in an attempt to ensure the situation does not spin out of control. He added, however, that a purely crisis management approach is inadequate and Cairo is firm that “a political process needs to be launched somehow, and sooner rather than later.”

During the past eight weeks Cairo has been engaging concerned capitals on how to bring international attention back to the Palestinian Cause. “Nobody is assuming that it is possible to jumpstart a peace process anytime soon let alone reach a peace deal anytime in the near future,” said the diplomat.

“We are all aware that international attention is focused on Ukraine, China and Iran while regional attention is focused on matters of political stability and economic cooperation, including cooperation with Israel.”

That said, during meetings and phone calls in the last two months, including gatherings that have convened in Cairo — “some announced and some not” — Cairo has  managed to “sketch an agenda of action” to start re-activating politics on the Palestinian front.

“We have spoken with the Palestinians, Israelis, Jordanians, French and others, including the Americans, and have received delegations from Hamas, the Palestinian Authority and from Israel,” explained the diplomat.

The Egyptian agenda, he said, is designed to facilitate a series of meetings that will allow for elementary Palestinian-Israeli talks to resume, though “not necessarily at the highest level”. He added that Cairo is aware of the fact that the Bennett government is not interested in a political process starting “but we have to act around the difficulties”.

Cairo is willing to host direct meetings “if the two parties agree” to work out a road map to restart the political process.

“There is the upcoming visit of Biden to Israel, which may include a stop somewhere else in the Middle East, and we want to make sure that the visit helps in re-launching a political process on the Palestinian front,” said the diplomat.

Last month, Egyptian and European diplomatic sources said Egypt was promoting the idea of a summit level meeting that could bring together Biden, Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas, Bennett, President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi and Jordan’s King Abdullah. This week, the same sources said that the issue is still being discussed and no final decision had been made.

“It is very significant that the Biden Administration opted to bring back attention to the two-state solution but we need to see some action,” the Egyptian diplomat said.

In a recent article published by the US Institute of Peace (USIP) Hisham Youssef, a former Egyptian diplomat and a senior fellow at USIP, argued that the dominant discourse on the Palestinian-Israeli struggle since the beginning of the Biden administration and the formation of the Bennett government had held out no hope of a Biden visit to Israel. He also noted that while the Biden Administration re-embraced the concept of a two-state solution it has so far shown little appetite for full engagement in the Middle East.

According to Youssef, there are several things Biden needs to do for his visit to Israel to qualify as a game changer on the Palestinian-Israeli front. First, he said, the Biden visit needs to create a clear and sustainable political horizon with a clear endgame.

The status of Al-Haram Al-Sharif, he wrote, should also be clearly addressed and the way to move towards a two-state solution must be clearly defined.

 Youssef argued the Biden visit should build on the work of the Munich Group, which brings together Egypt, Jordan, France and Germany, to relaunch peace talks between the Israelis and Palestinians. It should also, he added, encourage moves towards Palestinian elections and make sure that the normalisation process that several Arab capitals have started with Israel help in encouraging serious movement on the negotiations front.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 2 June, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.

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