A New Hamas-Saudi-Egyptian Triad Is Emerging

The realignment of alliances in the Middle East may just yet play in Israel's favor.

A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el
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Egypt's Foreign Minister Sameh Shukri, right, meeting with his Saudi Arabian counterpart Adel al-Jubeir at the foreign affairs headquarters in Cairo, Egypt May 31, 2015.
Egypt's Foreign Minister Sameh Shukri, right, meeting with his Saudi Arabian counterpart Adel al-Jubeir at the foreign affairs headquarters in Cairo, Egypt May 31, 2015.Credit: Reuters
A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el

Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir met with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sissi and Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry last month, at which time the Saudi minister presented his Egyptian guests with a new reconciliation proposal for Hamas and Egypt.

The Egyptian response was crystal clear: Egypt’s security is of utmost importance, and Hamas is part of the Muslim Brotherhood, which Egypt deems a terrorist organization. There will be no reconciliation.

The Egyptian Al-Bawaba News website reported that the Saudi reaction was also crystal clear. Hamas political leader Khaled Meshal was invited to visit Saudi Arabia and at the beginning of this month flew to the Saudi capital, Riyadh, with senior Hamas colleague Izzat al-Rishq on a plane put at their disposal by the government of Qatar. Joining them on the flight, by the way, was a delegation from Yemen’s Congregation for Reform party, which is affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood. At the end of the Riyadh meeting, Meshal received a $10 million “contribution” from the Saudis.

A week later, the Egyptians announced that they no longer considered Hamas a terrorist organization. A few days after that, Egypt decided to open its Rafah border crossing with the Gaza Strip for a week, not only to people but also to goods, including cement and other building materials.

A senior Hamas source told the pan-Arab Saudi daily Al-Hayat that an agreement had been reached between Egypt and Hamas providing that, in return for the opening of the Rafah crossing on a controlled basis, Hamas would commit not to conduct operations through underground tunnels and not to criticize Egypt in the media. The agreement was reached at a meeting in Qatar between Egyptian intelligence chief Khaled Fawzy and senior Hamas officials. It appears to have been the first working meeting between high-ranking Hamas people and senior Egyptians since Egypt declared Hamas a terrorist group.

Hamas sources are already speaking of the end to an Egyptian ban on Hamas and of the creation of a new diplomatic channel between Hamas and Cairo. And a knowledgeable Egyptian official said that the appointment of a new Egyptian ambassador to Israel, after an absence of an ambassador over the past three years, is also not unrelated to the Egyptian rapprochement with Hamas.

“Egypt is always careful to maintain a balanced policy,” he told Haaretz. “It doesn’t want to be seen as if its relations with Hamas are at the expense of [Egyptian] cooperation with Israel. The appointment of the ambassador is a very important step, and it may indicate that Egypt is facing a new stage in its relations with Hamas in particular and with the Palestinian Authority in general.”

The rapid improvement of ties between Hamas and Cairo was not, as noted, at Egypt’s initiative. The strategic steps that the Saudis have been putting together since January in an effort to mount a defense against Iranian influence – particularly as the date approaches on which Iran is supposed to sign a nuclear agreement with the major world powers – are turning Hamas into an essential player. In the three years or so since Hamas cut its ties with Syria and embarked on a path of confrontation with the Iranians, the Saudis hadn’t bothered raising the gauntlet on Hamas’ behalf, bringing it into the Arab embrace. Under the late King Abdullah, Saudi Arabia followed Egypt’s lead and declared the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist group. The Saudi-Egyptian strategy was carried out at the time in the view that Hamas had no other options available in any event, so there was no need to court it.

Things quickly changed in January, however, with the crowning of Saudi King Salman. A short time later, the new monarch met with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who became a new ally in the Sunni coalition against Syrian President Bashar Assad. Erdogan suggested that Saudi Arabia get closer to Hamas.

In the zero-sum game between Saudi Arabia and Iran, the Hamas-Tehran rift can be chalked up to the Saudis as an important accomplishment. The Saudis hope it will result in the severing of the last connection that gives the Iranians access to the Palestinian issue. But the embrace of Hamas also requires a change in approach on the Egyptians’ part. If the Egyptians have hesitated for a moment, the Saudis, who have provided billions to Cairo, have made it clear that Egypt’s attitude toward Hamas would have to change. Down the road, the Saudis say, the Egyptian government will have to consider reconciling with the Muslim Brotherhood as well.

Israel’s connection with this constellation of forces involves not only convincing Jerusalem to make reconstructing Gaza after last year’s war possible, but also for Israel not to attack Gaza, which would put the Saudi initiative at risk. As part of this effort, secret talks have begun between representatives of Qatar and of the European Union aimed at achieving a long-term cease-fire in Gaza. For the time being, Hamas has denied that a draft agreement of such a nature exists, but statements emanating from Hamas have not been uniform.

“There are a lot of trial balloons at the moment not only with respect to Israel but also with respect to [Palestinian Authority President] Mahmoud Abbas and the public in Gaza,” a Gaza-based Hamas source said. “In practice, there is a cease-fire and Hamas is very meticulous in maintaining it. One of the problems for us and Israel is how to come to an agreement without calling it an agreement.”

Another question is how this new set of relationships taking shape among Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Hamas will influence the peace process. A senior official with the Palestinian Authority who has been involved in reconciliation with Hamas said the Saudis and Egyptians are not demonstrating any interest in a resumption of peace talks. “Their interest,” the source said, “is regional and at the moment it is dictating the rapprochement with Hamas. Israel will ultimately be the primary beneficiary from this turn of events. It will have a cease-fire with Hamas. It will become an important element in the Saudi-Egypt-Hamas triad, and it won’t have to sit at the negotiating table with Mahmoud Abbas.”

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