Analysis |

Egypt: The New Power Broker?

Cairo has carved a key role for itself as an Israeli-Palestinian mediator and guarantor for Hamas’ conduct.

A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el
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Egyptian President Abdel Fattah Al-Sissi.
Egyptian President Abdel Fattah Al-Sissi.Credit: AFP
A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el

The very fact that Egypt was the one to announce that a cease-fire in the Gaza Strip would begin at 8 A.M. yesterday underscores the weight of its responsibility.

Egypt gave up on a fundamental element of its original cease-fire proposal, which was that talks on the parties’ core demands would begin only after the truce took hold. Instead, it agreed to receive a joint Palestinian delegation and hold preliminary discussions with it before the cease-fire began. But the same is true of Hamas. It originally said it would cease its fire only after an agreement was reached covering all its demands, but instead, it accepted a truce almost immediately after talks on these demands began.

These may seem like technical details, but they recall the concessions Hamas made to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas when it signed the reconciliation deal with Abbas’ Fatah party. Initially, Hamas also refused to sign that deal until agreement had been reached on all its demands, but it was ultimately forced to back down by Qatari pressure. Hamas’ conduct on this issue indicates that even on its core demands – opening the border crossings with both Israel and Egypt, releasing prisoners, expanding the area in which Gazans can fish and a complete Israeli withdrawal from Gaza – it might demonstrate more flexibility if pressed.

Egyptian sources said the cease-fire was conditioned on Israel agreeing to withdraw all its forces from Gaza. Since Israel had already begun withdrawing its forces, that wasn’t an insurmountable obstacle. But by making this demand, Egypt has accepted not only the role of mediator, but also the role of guarantor for Hamas’ conduct. Any fire from Hamas or other Palestinian factions in Gaza will now be a black mark against Egypt.

Nevertheless, Hamas currently has a vested interest in rehabilitating its relationship with Egypt – and not only because Egypt controls the Rafah border crossing, a vital lifeline that Hamas desperately needs reopened. Egypt’s economic importance to Gaza is undoubtedly enormous; it’s a conduit through which Gaza residents can travel abroad, export their goods, import construction materials and obtain electricity without being dependent on Israel’s goodwill. But Egypt could also be a source of Arab political support for Hamas. If the negotiations end with the parties agreeing on a kind of Marshall Plan for Gaza, a large proportion of the goods needed for the Strip’s reconstruction will pass through Egypt.

Cairo also has an interest in maintaining ties with Hamas as long as the latter remains the ruling power in Gaza, in order to neutralize the involvement of Qatar, Turkey and Iran in an issue over which Egypt has always held a monopoly.

Hamas’ “return” to the Arab fold after severing its ties with Syria and Iran hasn’t been of much benefit to the organization so far. But its reconciliation with Fatah was supposed to rescue it from the deep economic and political crisis in which it was mired, while also guaranteeing it some measure of influence over the administration of Palestinian territory.

Before the current war began, Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah al-Sissi, who consistently supported the Palestinian reconciliation, offered Hamas a chance to rehabilitate its relationship with Egypt if it would “alter its conduct” – i.e., subordinate itself to the PA and disassociate itself from its parent movement, the Muslim Brotherhood. It’s doubtful Hamas will agree. But if it did choose to place its Palestinian identity above its ideological affinity with the Muslim Brotherhood, this would be an important achievement for Egypt.

Nevertheless, the cease-fire poses a test not for Egypt alone, but also for Israel. Israel’s test lies in how willing it is to expand its close military cooperation with Cairo into diplomatic cooperation as well. This entails allowing al-Sissi to portray himself as the savior of Gaza and the flag-bearer of its reconstruction, while refraining from putting unnecessary landmines in his way.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu did hint that the fighting in Gaza could result in a new relationship between Israel and the Arab states. But without a willingness to present a new diplomatic initiative for solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, relying on the divisions in the Arab world between those who support Hamas and those who oppose it won’t be enough to breathe life into this new relationship.

Yet for all the importance of the Egyptian-Palestinian-Israeli axis, it isn’t the only factor that will determine the negotiations’ outcome. The relationship between Hamas and Fatah still hasn’t stabilized, and it is full of bombs that could easily explode. The proposal that Abbas take responsibility for Gaza in general and the Rafah crossing in particular will require the consent of Hamas and other militant organizations in Gaza. The proposal that reconstruction aid for Gaza pass solely through the PA is also liable to spark a fierce dispute with Hamas. Thus even if the cease-fire manages to hold for a while, the inter-Palestinian political war could end up causing its collapse.

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