Egypt weighs behind the Palestinians

Ahmed Eleiba , Tuesday 15 Jun 2021

In the course of ongoing efforts to promote Palestinian reconciliation, Cairo is sponsoring a series of exploratory talks with Palestinian delegations to hammer out a working plan

Abbas Kamel& Palestinian factions
File Photo: Egyptian General Intelligence Service Abbas Kamel during his meeting with the Palestinian factions in Gaza.

Last week Cairo hosted a Hamas delegation headed by Ismail Haniyeh and a Fatah delegation headed by Fatah Secretary-General Jibril Rajoub. This week, it hosted a delegation from the Palestinian Authority (PA) headed by PA Deputy Prime Minister Ziad Abu Amr and including an economic group. Haniyeh and Rajoub discussed a range of issues in separate talks with Egyptian General Intelligence officials. The talks with Hamas covered five points: prisoner exchanges with Israel, securing the ceasefire, reconstruction, the Israeli refusal to transfer Qatari financial aid which is mainly used to cover civil servants’salaries in Gaza, the Palestinian legislative elections and Palestinian reconciliation. The two latter subjects were also discussed between Egyptian officials and Fatah.

Meanwhile, changes in Israel’s leadership have raised questions concerning the fate of the agreements struck between Cairo and Tel Aviv following the last crisis in Gaza. Observers believe that the new government, headed by ultra-right Naftali Bennett, might cast a shadow over the relative progress Cairo, Tel Aviv and Washington achieved when Benjamin Netanyahu was in power.

While most analysts have pronounced an end to the Netanyahu era, some Egyptian experts on Israeli affairs think the immediate future could easily pack some surprises. Hazem Khairat, Egypt’s former ambassador to Israel, believes Netanyahu invaded Gaza in the belief it would secure a degree of “personal glory” ahead of the elections. In the opinion of Said Okasha, an Israeli affairs expert at Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies (ACPSS), Bennet might defy everyone’s exceptions and show that the extreme right he represents has changed the power equation for good and the coalition that replaced Netanyahu is not as fragile as most analysts think.

The Palestinian factions are factoring the political changes in Israel into their calculations as they manoeuvre to turn the current situation as much to their own advantage as possible. Their success or failure, however, is not solely contingent on Cairo. A source familiar with developments in the Palestinian reconciliation process and the current talks in Cairo stressed that Cairo is a mediator and a sponsor of the process; it cannot force the parties to act against their will.

On the substance of the last round of talks, he said: “Hamas came with new demands from Israel and the PA. The meeting was friendly, as it was with Fatah. But Hamas knows that Fatah is not ready for elections. It wants the elections to serve as the portal to a sweeping change, from the summit to the base and from the National Council to parliament to the PLO. Fatah fully understands this would damage it severely, perhaps irreparably.”

Hamas’ behaviour is informed by its awareness that, since the war, its popularity has soared throughout the occupied territories, including Jerusalem. A Palestinian source from Ramallah confirms this and explains that Hamas’ zero-sum game logic lies behind the current impasse in elections. “The elections will not be an avenue to exclusion... it will not be a process in which one political entity shoves aside another.”

While Hamas is pushing its hand, Fatah continues to hold an important trump card. It is the official address of the Palestinian government, and the US and Israel are adamant that all material and financial aid, whether for salaries, relief or reconstruction, passes through the PA directly to its intended beneficiaries, bypassing Hamas. The PA appears to have shrugged off Hamas’ call for a joint national organisation to oversee the handling of aid and reconstruction or, at least, the make-up of the PA delegation to Cairo to study the reconstruction question gives this impression.

On an Israeli-Hamas prisoner exchange deal, the outlook of the new government in Israel and its preoccupation with assuming its duties will naturally have an impact. Sources in Cairo argue that the influence of the political/ideological hue of the new government on this issue should not be overstated. As General Mohamed Ibrahim, an Egyptian negotiator with experience in brokering such deals, put it: “We’ve negotiated with Sharon before... The context doesn’t affect the technical side of negotiations. Of course, the political decision is another matter... Let’s wait and see.”

Meanwhile, Cairo is proceeding with the steps necessary to set the reconstruction process in motion. It has already delivered much of the heavy machinery needed to remove the vast amounts of rubble left behind by the Israeli assaults and is studying the process in collaboration with world powers and international agencies. It is also working to overcome problems associated with the PA’s insistence it be exclusively in charge of the process even though it has been cut off from Gaza for 15 years. Cairo and its partners have also pledged to guarantee full transparency in the financial administration of reconstruction. Hamas frequently accuses the PA of corruption. Naturally, Cairo will have a role in mediating the arrangements with Israel that need to be made to facilitate the rebuilding.

Sources in Cairo say it is too early to determine the prospects for failure or success in any of the above-mentioned issues. Talks on some had to be delayed due to domestic Israeli politics and Cairo’s crowded foreign policy agenda.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 17 June, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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