Analysis |

Turkey Seeks to Replace Egypt in Palestinian Arena – and Israel Should Be Worried

The Palestinian Authority has embroiled itself in a power struggle between two rival Mideast coalitions: One comprises Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Israel. The other includes Turkey, Qatar and, at a distance, Iran

A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el
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Abbas and Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh in Ramallah, June 15, 2020.
Abbas and Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh in Ramallah, June 15, 2020.Credit: MOHAMAD TOROKMAN/REUTERS
A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el

The Rafah crossing, which provides the Gaza Strip’s only access to Egypt, has been closed since March, apart from two brief periods. Officially, this is in order to stop the spread of the coronavirus. But although that reason is indisputably valid, Egypt has also likely kept the crossing closed as part of its sanctions on Hamas for daring to take independent political action.

For two months, Hamas and Fatah have been discussing reviving their reconciliation plan and holding new elections – first for the Palestinian Legislative Council, effectively the parliament for Palestinians living in the West Bank and Gaza, then for the presidency, and finally for the Palestinian National Council, the representative institution for Palestinians everywhere.

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When Israel and the United Arab Emirates signed their peace agreement, Palestinians were forced to come to terms with reality: Arab states are ditching the Arab Peace Initiative, normalizing relations with Israel and ending their theoretical guarantee that any peace deal with Israel would require an Israeli withdrawal.

Seeking alternatives to this Arab safety net, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas authorized Jibril Rajoub, secretary-general of the PLO’s executive committee, to seek help from other countries in opening negotiations with Hamas. In early September, Fatah and Hamas officials met in Beirut. The next meeting was in Damascus. Then, on September 22, they met in Istanbul, which sparked outrage in Cairo.

Palestinian officials termed the meeting a “breakthrough,” and Turkey suddenly became the Palestinians’ matchmaker. Agreements in principle were reached for elections to take place over the course of six months, with the goal of forming a national unity government that includes all Palestinian factions. At the next meeting, which will take place in Ramallah, representatives of these factions are expected to authorize Abbas to issue decrees specifying the dates of the elections and how they will be run.

Members of Palestinian security forces check people leaving Gaza to Egypt, during a short lull in the complete closure of the Rafah border crossing, September 28, 2020.Credit: SUHAIB SALEM/ REUTERS

The meeting after that is supposed to happen in Cairo. But three weeks after the “Istanbul understandings” were reached, Egypt still hasn’t approved it. According to a Palestinian Authority official, Egypt isn’t content with just playing host.

“They want to be a party to the talks, and are apparently angry that talks... were held in Turkey. We gave [Turkish President Recep Tayyip] Erdogan a political entry ticket into the internal Palestinian arena, a role traditionally reserved for Egypt,” he said.

Officially, Hamas and Fatah officials say Egypt has a central role in the process and neither group plans to adopt a new patron. But the agreements stipulate that wherever the talks take place, they will be “purely Palestinian, without other countries’ involvement.” In short, Egypt can’t join them.

Last week, the Palestinians fired another arrow at Egypt, when a group of senior Hamas officials headed by Moussa Abu Marzouk met in Moscow with President Vladimir Putin’s Mideast envoy, Mikhail Bogdanov. Abu Marzouk later tweeted that Moscow is willing to host talks between the leaders of the Palestinian factions.

Abdullah Abdullah, a member of Fatah’s Revolutionary Council, also said that if Egypt doesn’t agree to host the meeting, “The Palestinians won’t be captive to the venue. We’ll find another way to hold it.”

Palestinian pundits were quick to conclude that Egypt’s monopoly on managing the internal Palestinian dispute was collapsing, and that Turkey and Qatar might replace it.

Sitting on the Mideast fault line

Don’t hold your breath for Palestinian reconciliation. Fatah and Hamas have reached agreements countless times only for new disputes to erupt, sometimes within hours, with both accusing the other of violating the agreement.

This time, too, the agreement in principle reached in Turkey will likely founder on details such as when the elections will be held, how they will be run, how seats in parliament will be divvied up, and the elusive identity of Abbas’ successor.

Nevertheless, the talks show Fatah’s willingness to view Turkey, Hamas’ patron, as a facilitator of internal Palestinian talks, and also to give Russia a foothold in them. The PA has thereby embroiled itself in a power struggle between two rival Mideast coalitions.

One comprises Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Israel. The other includes Turkey, Qatar and, at a distance, Iran. Their disputes initially had nothing to do with the Palestinians, but quickly spread to them, which requires Israel to take a stand as well.

The PA’s rapprochement with non-Arab Mideast countries stems not only from the recognition that it has lost its formerly supportive Arab partners, but also from its deep economic crisis. According to Palestinian Finance Ministry data released on Sunday, international aid to the PA plunged by 81 percent during the first eight months of the year.

Notably, Arab aid dropped to $38 million, down from $198 million during the same period last year. Saudi aid alone tumbled from $130 million to just $30 million.

The PA still refuses to accept the taxes Israel collects on its behalf since Israel started deducting the sum that it says is spent on supporting Palestinians that were jailed on terrorism charges and their families. The European Union has so far refused to make up the shortfall, saying the PA must first accept its own money – the customs duties and value-added tax Israel transfers, minus the deduction – before Europe considers increasing aid.

Israel treats this economic crisis as if it was not affected. Israeli officials say they assume economic pressure will eventually force the PA to accept the tax money, and also to accept the Trump peace plan, thereby reviving U.S. and Arab aid.

Israel also presumably thinks that if the crisis worsens, Arab states like Qatar, which has already become the Gaza Strip’s ATM, will come to the PA’s rescue. But so far, both assumptions seem baseless.

The question that should really concern Israel and its Arab allies, however, is whether they ought to let Turkey and/or Qatar fill the PA’s empty coffers, thereby granting them influence over the PA’s actions. This is also a dilemma for Abbas, who must make a strategic decision that will have significant implications for the PA’s future and the future of any diplomatic solution.

Like all leaders worldwide, Abbas is apparently awaiting the results of the U.S. presidential election before deciding which way to turn. For now, albeit with no joy, he has given a green light for continued reconciliation talks with Hamas, while hoping that a new U.S. president will soon take his chestnuts out of the fire.

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