Sunday's international donors conference on Gaza aid in Cairo could be a springboard for bringing Egypt back to the top of the Arab world’s diplomatic pyramid and provide substantial reinforcement for Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas – should it succeed.
If it fails – that is, if its decisions are not carried out, it could be a serious blow to the leadership of Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah al-Sissi, and destroy Abbas’ status as the leader of the Palestinian people.
The reports from Cairo, particularly the extensive coverage the conference received all day on the state TV channel (including live broadcasts) indicate what Egypt is seeking. After three years of governmental instability and one of the worst economic crises in the country’s history, Egypt wants to be at the forefront of the Arab and Islamic worlds’ diplomatic stage – not Saudi Arabia and Qatar, with all their money, or Turkey whose President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, is building himself up as his country’s undisputed leader and head of the international Muslim Brotherhood.
Sissi spoke, as is his habit, in quiet tones and conveyed clearly that the key to a successful rehabilitation of the Gaza Strip rests on two principles: a permanent truce, which means that Hamas cannot shoot at or pepper Israel with rockets every time it suffers internal or regional distress, and the return of the PA, with all of its powers, to the Gaza Strip. Sissi’s rhetoric was indeed aimed at Hamas, but also at Abbas, who could experience a significant improvement in his status and that of his faction, Fatah, if the process succeeds. Even if he does not contend in the next Palestinian elections, he could say with confidence that “I rehabilitated Gaza” and regain the public’s trust for Fatah and the PA.
Sissi was speaking to a pan-Arabic diplomatic audience at an excellent time for him; while the Egyptian people were celebrating the 41st anniversary of the Yom Kippur War (the “glorious October victory”). Anyone watching the festivities this year noticed the emphasis put on the role then-Egyptian President Anwar Sadat played, while deposed President Hosni Mubarak, who commanded the Egyptian air force during the war, disappeared from the screens. Sissi has no plans to visit Israel in the near future or address the Knesset, but as Sadat once did, he appealed directly to Israelis, saying, “Now is the time to end the conflict, for jutsice's sake ... so that we all can have peace and security.”
Sissi added that he was addressing every man, woman, and child in Palestine and Israel, asking them to work toward realizing the dream of coexistence and living together on the basis of the Arab Peace Initiative. Although there was no hint of a threat in his remarks, he explained that Israel could not be secure in the future without a diplomatic agreement with the Palestinians, and that the Arab initiative was the umbrella under which this could be actualized.
The conference closed with over $5.4 billion pledged, more than the goal set by Abbas. Qatar alone pledged a billion dollars. Qatar’s money and Hamas’ positions are liable to lead to a new power struggle, and the people of Gaza will find themselves at the center of a regional battle of interests. The question is whether all the parties will come to their senses and act on behalf of the Gaza Strip and the future state of Palestine, as they are promising, or they will act solely in their own interests, while Israel, a major player, has yet to say what its plans are.