Abbas Taking Center Stage in Cease-fire Negotiations

Israel will have to accept the Palestinian president as a party to the agreement, which conflicts with its policy of separation.

A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el
Send in e-mailSend in e-mail
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in Cairo, July 16, 2014Credit: AP
A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el

After speaking with the leaders of Egypt, Turkey and Qatar, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas is beginning to behave like the president of all Palestinians, and to try his hand at mediation. On Wednesday he went to Egypt for a long tete-a-tete with President Abdel-Fattah al-Sissi and intelligence officials, in an effort to rework Cairo’s cease-fire proposal. He was expected to stay in Cairo until Friday, and to meet with Hamas leaders Khaled Meshal and Moussa Abu Marzouk.

An Egyptian source told Haaretz that the reason the Egyptian proposal was discussed with Israel and Abbas before it was presented to Hamas was not the tension between Egypt and Hamas, but rather because Cairo now views Abbas as the primary address.

Egypt’s new approach was also evident in the proposal, which referred to “Palestinian factions” rather than Hamas. The 2012 cease-fire agreement expressly noted Hamas’ responsibility for upholding the truce and
preventing other Palestinian organizations from firing at Israel. Now it seems Egypt seeks to share responsibility for events in the Gaza Strip with Abbas, in order to strengthen Abbas’ status.

But Abbas will need to show real gains to persuade Hamas to stop firing, such as an Egyptian promise to reopen the Rafah crossing.

Hamas also wants international guarantees for the cease-fire, though the details on that have not been worked out.

It’s doubtful Hamas could ask the United Nations to adopt and guarantee the cease-fire, but Abbas has the right to make the request. Another option is to ask the Quartet — the United States, Russia, the European Union and the UN — to serve as Israel’s guarantor, while Abbas would serve as that of the Palestinians.

Abbas will also try to enlist the support of Turkey and Qatar, mainly because they are Hamas’ last remaining supporters. They continue to fund the Gaza government; Qatar is hosting Meshal, while Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Meshal are close friends. Qatar has already undertaken to help finance the reconstruction of Gaza after this conflict ends, and Turkey is building civilian projects, including a hospital, in the territory. But while their positions may have great influence on Hamas, they are far from being able to influence Israel and their relations with Egypt are poor.

On Tuesday the Qatari ruler, Tamim Bin Hamad Al Thani, went to Turkey and met with Erdogan and President Abdullah Gul. The content of the meeting was not disclosed but a Turkish source told Haaretz “the intent of Turkey and Qatar is not to suggest their own cease-fire, or to pull the rug out from under the feet of Egypt as the mediator, but to offer Hamas economic aid.” This is also why Abbas’ involvement in the negotiations is essential, since it is assumed that he could get Israel to permit Palestinian banks to pay the salaries of about 45,000 Hamas government clerks, to ease the restrictions at the crossings and arrange for a quiet and controlled release of Hamas prisoners.

This could be a start toward ending the crisis. But to implement it, Israel would have to accept Abbas not just as a mediator, but a party to the agreement. That would conflict with Jerusalem’s goal of making a distinction between Hamas and the PA. Hamas, meanwhile, would have to submit itself to Abbas’ mediation and agree to have him guarantee Hamas’ behavior. These are serious obstacles and it isn’t clear whether or how they can be circumvented.

Comments