Israeli-Palestinian Peace? Sissi Has Enough Problems at Home

A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el
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Egyptian protesters shout slogans against President Abdel Fattah al-Sissi and the government during a demonstration protesting the government's decision to transfer two Red Sea islands to Saudi Arabia, in front of the Press Syndicate in Cairo, Egypt, April 15, 2016.
Egyptian protesters shout slogans against President Abdel Fattah al-Sissi and the government during a demonstration in Cairo, Egypt, April 15, 2016.Credit: Reuters
A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el

Broadcast my speech, Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah al-Sissi urged the Israeli media from the city of Asyut, where he was inaugurating a new power plant. And though the full speech didn’t air in Israel, for two whole days – a long time by Israeli standards – it did make waves there.

Under other circumstances, or under a different Israeli government, Sissi’s remarks would surely have had more influence; his urging that Israelis seize this “opportunity for peace” might even have sparked diplomatic movement.

But at the end of those 48 hours, the speech had to compete with an Israeli political farce – the proposal to make Avigdor Lieberman defense minister. This is the same Lieberman, as Sissi surely remembers, who once threatened to bomb the Aswan Dam and only years afterward finally agreed to consider Egypt an ally. It would be interesting to hear Sissi’s views on the new appointee.

To Sissi’s credit, he was cautious. He didn’t propose that Egypt lead the peace process. He didn’t call for an international conference, but merely proposed it as an option. And he didn’t demand that the settlements be dismantled.

The “right of return” didn’t star in his speech, and even “the legitimate rights of the Palestinian people” – a stock phrase in Arab pronouncements – was missing from 14 of the 22 minutes devoted to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The main sweetener in his address was the promise that solving the Palestinian problem would lead to warmer relations between Israel and Egypt. But he quickly balanced this by urging the rival Palestinian parties, Hamas and Fatah, to reconcile, something Israel is far from encouraging.

Speculation that Sissi coordinated the timing and content of his speech with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is entertaining, but the timing was apparently due mainly to expectations of a visit by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and preliminary work by former British Prime Minister Tony Blair.

Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah al-Sissi, surrounded by top military generals, as he addresses journalists following an emergency meeting in Cairo on January 31, 2015.Credit: AFP

The speech generated mixed reactions in the Egyptian media. Some compared it to former Egyptian President Anwar Sadat’s famous visit to Jerusalem, but others assailed it.

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is the only international issue on which Egypt can still be considered influential. It’s hardly involved in the Syrian crisis, the Arab coalition it sought to form to fight the Islamic State in Libya and Sinai died after Saudi Arabia set up its own “Sunni coalition,” and in other regional conflicts Cairo’s policy is largely dictated by Riyadh, which holds its purse strings.

In contrast, “thawing” the peace with Israel is entirely within Sissi’s control. He has already significantly bolstered security and intelligence cooperation with Israel and even managed to bring Saudi Arabia in as a back-door partner to the Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty when he gave Riyadh control over two Red Sea islands.

But concerning civilian affairs – trade delegations, cultural exchanges and ending the media and cultural boycotts of Israel – Sissi, like his predecessors Sadat and Hosni Mubarak, has kept the peace cold.

Incidentally, so has King Abdullah of Jordan; the difference is that Abdullah can’t let himself ignore developments in the Palestinian arena. Sissi, it seems, can close the Gaza-Egypt border, accuse Hamas of terror and still declare himself the gatekeeper of relations with Israel, the one to whom Hamas leaders must turn for help.

Still, the peace process isn’t Sissi’s main concern. More important is the crash of the EgyptAir plane, possibly due to terrorism. If terror was indeed the cause, all international air travel will be threatened, not just Egypt’s.

Egypt’s real threats are its unending war on terror and its economic abyss. This week its gas minister signed an agreement with British Gas under which Egypt will pay $400 million next month as part of a settlement of its $3.2 billion debt to the company. British Gas has halted some of its work in Egypt’s offshore gas fields because Egyptian commitments weren’t honored.

But where will the money come from? From Egypt’s dwindling foreign currency reserves, now at just $16 billion? From the savings it hopes to make by cutting import permits, or the foreign-currency deposits importers must make to win such permits?

A few days ago Egypt announced that next month Cairo will sign a deal with Moscow on building a nuclear reactor – a project that has been treading water for decades. The reactor is expected to supply a significant chunk of Egypt’s electricity needs.

No less important, Egypt will employ 20,000 people to build it and 4,000 to operate it – not bad for a country that must supply 700,000 to 1 million jobs annually to reduce its 13 percent unemployment, or 23 percent among young people.

But even if the project opens on schedule, it will take six years to produce electricity. In the meantime, Sissi will have to explain not only why there’s no electricity, but how he plans to create jobs for the millions of unemployed who flooded Cairo’s Tahrir Square during the 2011 revolution.

According to FocusEconomics, Egypt’s inflation rate exceeds 10 percent, its debt this year will grow to 91 percent from 88 percent of gross domestic product, exports will shrink to $19.8 billion from $22.2 billion, and external debt will rise to $63 billion from $57 billion. Ordinary Egyptians don’t read these numbers, but they know how much they’re paying for food and utilities.

Nor is the terrorism news encouraging. This week the governor of northern Sinai extended the state of emergency that has lasted about two years already, and Egyptian security forces have bombed terrorist bases in Sinai and arrested thousands of suspects.

Egyptian casualties from terror have declined, but the May 8 attack in Helwan that killed eight policemen was enough to undermine Egyptians’ feelings of security anew.

In between coping with terror and the economic crisis, Sissi must also deal with outrage caused by the handover or return – depending on whom you ask – of the two Red Sea islands to Riyadh. A court is now hearing petitions against the deal, and thousands demonstrated against it in April. Sissi, as usual, responded by arresting tens of thousands of demonstrators.

None of this is relevant to Sissi’s call for Israeli-Palestinian peace talks. But since Israel’s government doesn’t share Egypt’s vision for the Middle East in any case, Sissi’s main concern will be how to keep Gaza from becoming a Hamas-Israel battlefield once again.

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