Netanyahu's Secret Regional Peace Bid Sparked Tensions Between Egypt's Sissi and Abbas, Palestinian Sources Say

Palestinian leader opposed efforts to convene summit, which Sissi agreed to host; friction caused Egypt to refuse entry to Fatah's Jibril Rajoub.

Mahmoud Abbas and Egypt's Sissi meet in Cairo, Egypt, October 12, 2014.
AFP

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas objected to efforts last year to launch a regional peace initiative with the participation of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah al-Sissi and additional Arab leaders.

According to information obtained by Haaretz, Sissi’s agreement to host the regional summit has caused great friction between Abbas and the Egyptian president, even leading Egypt recently to bar Fatah Central Committee Jibril Rajoub from entering the country.

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On Sunday, Haaretz reported on an effort to launch a regional peace process that would also include the formation of a unity government in Israel. Three weeks after sending the proposal, however, Netanyahu began to backtrack.

According to Palestinian sources familiar with the details, Abbas, convinced that Netanyahu would not lead a serious effort to advance the peace process, vehemently opposed the holding of a peace conference in Paris and any measures to promote the two-state solution. The Palestinian leader, said the sources, believed that Netanyahu was cooperating with the push for a regional peace agreement in order to shake off responsibility and in hopes of pressuring the Palestinians into additional concessions.

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“Unfortunately, Sissi agreed to play this game, and Kerry, who knew he was nearing the end of his own term, sought to present some kind of achievement,” a senior Palestinian official said.

“To the Palestinian leadership it was clear that there was no intent to advance a move like this and this compartmentalization, as if such a dramatic move could be led through Egypt, was a fundamental error by Egypt and also by Kerry," the official said.

Sources in Ramallah explained that the Arab Peace Initiative, which has been on the table since 2002, could be the basis for any serious peace diplomatic process and the initiative calls explicitly for ending the occupation and establishing a Palestinian state along the 1967 borders in return for the Arab states normalizing relations with Israel.

Netanyahu, seeking to gain time and to bring down the Arab initiative, played on Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states in an effort to reverse the equation, such that Arab leaders would begin a normalization process without an Israeli commitment to end the occupation or push to implement the two-state solution.

“We’ve had our fill of empty declarations and the avoidance of any serious plan to advance the peace process,” a senior PLO official said. “We understand that Egypt has its interests but we will not agree for them to be at the expense of the Palestinian national interest.” The official noted the Saudis also understood the implications of the move and weren’t hurrying to jump into the game; it’s doubtful they would have attended such a summit, he said.

Abbas’ associates noted that during the last months of the Obama administration he had spoken on several occasions of the importance of the Palestinians making their own diplomatic decisions, and that the Palestinians would not accept having strategic decisions imposed on them by any country, including the Arab countries. In this context these sources noted that Abbas was referring particularly to Cairo, and this is what had caused the tensions between him and Sissi.

These tensions have led Cairo to court former senior Fatah official Mohammed Dahlan, who was forced out of the movement. During the past two months, including this week, there have been three conferences at an Egyptian resort attended by Palestinians identified with Dahlan, most of them from the Gaza Strip.

Egypt has also increased the hours of operation of the Rafah border crossing and has started talks with Hamas, including with the vice chairman of its political bureau, Ismail Haniyeh. In Ramallah officials say that these are a result of the disagreements between Sissi and Abbas over the regional peace effort and are not themselves the reason for the tensions, as some have claimed.

Two weeks ago, PLO Secretary General Saeb Erekat visited Cairo to meet Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry. It was a day after Sissi and Jordan's King Abdullah met in Cairo and declared that they were committed to the two-state solution and that any other solution posed a risk to regional security and stability. This message reassured the Palestinians, particularly after U.S. President Donald Trump and Netanyahu, in their joint press conference at the White House, seemed to be backing away from the two-state solution.

Haaretz has learned that Erekat conveyed to Shoukry all the Palestinian concerns about the touted regional initiative, pointing out recent developments in Israel like the Regularization Law that make any future arrangement less likely. The initiative, he said, would not promote a two-state solution and would only serve Netanyahu's interests.

According to Palestinian sources the Egyptians promised answers soon, and both sides spoke about taking steps to improve bilateral relations. A week later, however, the Egyptian authorities refused entry to Fatah Secretary General Jibril Rajoub, who had come to attend the Arab League conference; he was returned to Amman on the first available flight. That was perceived by Ramallah as sign that the tensions are continuing.