Analysis

Confusion Reigns in Cairo as Sides Remain Far Apart

Egypt's president doesn't think Hamas and Israel will reach an agreement in coming days, while the Palestinians aren't even sure who's authorized to agree on their behalf.

Reuters

Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah al-Sissi is in no hurry. Today he will hold his first official visit to Saudi Arabia, during which he will thank King Abdullah for his strong support of both him and Egyptian policies. He will also request an expansion of the financial aid that is so vital to Egypt, as well as coordinating future steps regarding Hamas and the Palestinian Authority.

On Tuesday, Sissi will continue on to Russia, where he will meet President Vladimir Putin. There, too, he will request assistance for financing the excavation of a 72-kilometer (44-mile) parallel track for the Suez Canal – Sissi’s pet project.

Sissi doesn’t think Hamas and Israel will sign a cease-fire agreement in coming days. And even if a deal is reached by some miracle, it is doubtful whether he will want to honor the signing with his presence.

The negotiations with the Palestinian factions that remained in Cairo after the Israeli delegation left are being handled by the head of Egypt’s military intelligence, Gen. Mohammed Ahmed Fareed al-Tohami.

He has clear instructions regarding the limits of his country’s concessions, which are narrow and confined. Egypt is unwilling to discuss the opening of the Rafah border crossing as part of the negotiations, and it rejects the claim that its closure is part of the siege of Gaza. Egypt clarified a few weeks ago that it would be willing to open the crossing if a Palestinian unity government, not Hamas, takes charge of its operation.

Egypt has not deviated from this position in the current round of talks. Thus, Egypt sees itself as a mediator and not as a partner to the negotiations, its role being to offer compromises. Its only concession so far has been to hold talks even in the absence of a cease-fire.

There is some confusion in the Palestinian delegation about who is actually conducting their negotiations. According to Egyptian sources, every idea that is raised goes to Hamas’ political leader Khaled Meshal for comments, agreement or rejection. His delegates in Cairo have no authority to decide – in contrast to Islamic Jihad representatives, who were instructed by the organization’s leader to accept Egyptian proposals.

The head of the Palestinian delegation, Azzam al-Ahmed, legitimizes it as not being a Hamas delegation but rather a Palestinian one. He is in constant contact with President Mahmoud Abbas, who is also now viewed as a silent partner without decision authority. While he supports the demand for opening a seaport and an airport and the lifting of the siege on Gaza, Abbas cannot offer a cease-fire or sign an agreement that Hamas opposes.

The gap between Israel and the Palestinians remains large, and Hamas has declared that it won’t yield on core issues such as the lifting of the siege, the opening of crossings between Gaza and the West Bank, fishing up to the 12-mile nautical limit, freeing of Palestinian prisoners who were rearrested after being released in the 2011 Gilad Shalit deal, and international and Arab guarantees for implementing a cease-fire.

Israel has not replied to these demands, but the gap may be bridged by long-term timetables and procedures, dependent on reciprocal implementation of earlier conditions.

Thus, European and Palestinian Authority personnel could supervise the Rafah crossing. After a while, this would be evaluated; supervised crossings to the West Bank could be resumed as well. Opening of a seaport and airport would be postponed to a later stage, following Palestinian elections.

Egypt defined these demands as belonging to a peace treaty, not a cease-fire. Early agreement is possible on reconstruction in Gaza, with Abbas and Egypt ensuring that financial sources are legitimate and that building materials are not diverted to replenishing Hamas’ military infrastructure. Timetables and arrangements for supervision will be part of the deal if Israel agrees to these principles.

Discussions around these arrangements could take a while, since Israel demands a cease-fire before renewing negotiations, whereas Hamas believes that only rocket fire will make Israel more flexible.