Analysis

Egypt Still Holds the Key in Cease-fire Talks

Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah al-Sissi is determined to keep his country at the center of any cease-fire talks, although Hamas’ political leader Khaled Meshal may look to steal the show.

Reuters

“I take my hat off to Israel, and I say to the army, the people, and the Israeli leadership – you’re good men,” enthused Tawfik Okasha, owner and anchor of the Egyptian television channel Al-Faraeen. Although it’s true that Okasha has a personal vendetta against the Muslim Brotherhood, which closed down his channel during their rule, statements such as these haven’t been heard in Egypt in generations. There’s no doubt that the official and public discourse in Egypt is more favorable to Israel than it is to Hamas, but it’s still too early to rejoice about any kind of miracle from above.

This discourse could turn at any given moment. Egypt is mired in a national loss much more troubling than the death of over 400 Palestinians in Gaza. Although the deaths of 22 Egyptian soldiers near the western border at the hands of unidentified terrorist gangs has drowned out discussions of Gaza, the Egyptians continue to hold the position that they, and no other state – Turkey, Qatar or any other – should mediate the diplomatic efforts at a cease-fire.

It’s not just Turkey and Qatar that are in Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah al-Sissi’s political crosshairs. Sissi made clear to U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry that he does not intend to visit the American-African summit meeting, where he was meant to meet President Obama. Instead, Sissi will send Prime Minister Ibrahim Mahlab and Foreign Minister Sameh Shukri.

The rift between Cairo and Washington began back on June 22, during Kerry’s visit to Cairo, after the United States took a long time to decide whether or not to grant legitimacy to Sissi prior to elections. The rift deepened when Sissi announced his cease-fire plan without so much as consulting the Americans, and even further when the United States declared support for the Turkish-Qatari plan.

Although Sissi’s quarrel with the United States, Qatar and Turkey hasn’t frozen diplomatic efforts, it has pushed Hamas into an unfamiliar corner, in which it is lacking any Arab or Iranian support; nor is it in direct talks with the Egyptian government. Hamas is dependent on the events in Gaza to create a shift in international and Arab public opinion, which doesn’t seem quick in coming. The boot currently on Hamas’ throat is expressed in Egypt’s staunch denial that Hamas’ leadership turned down an invitation to come to Egypt to negotiate.

Khaled Meshal, who resides in Qatar and was meant to meet Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas yesterday, was invited to Egypt on the condition that he agree to the Egyptian cease-fire proposal. Also, Meshal would be required to agree to exclusive Egyptian supervision of the cease-fire agreement, and give up on his demand for international – primarily American – supervision of the Rafah border crossing.

Egyptians have made it clear that opening the Rafah crossing, which is currently open only to the injured, will be done in such a way as to prevent thousands of Palestinians from flooding into Egypt. The rest of Hamas’ conditions, like ending the blockade, releasing prisoners, permission to pay Hamas personnel salaries through Palestinian banks, ending the prohibitions on fishing and building a port, are conditions that involve Israel, and Egypt has not been willing to discuss them in Israel’s name.

Abbas is actually set to propose partial solutions, and some believe that he will agree to release Hamas personnel currently jailed in PA prisons, and convince Israel to allow salaries to be paid.

The diplomatic negotiations, therefore, have to proceed on two simultaneous channels. One is between Egypt and Hamas, on issues that have to deal with Egyptian interests, and the other is meant to satisfy Israel. The two channels connect at the issue of the Rafah crossing, on which Israel and Egypt are in coordination. It seems Hamas will have to accept what the two countries decide.

Hamas has already proven in the past – both in the agreement with Israel in 2012 and in its recent reconciliation with Fatah – that it knows how to make concessions during tough times, in order to ensure its survival. The question remains: How long will Meshal wait until he proposes an alternate version of the Egyptian plan, which would satisfy both Israel and Egypt, and present Hamas as the one that made “the winning proposal?”