Analysis

Trump's 'Deal of the Century' for the Middle East Might Live or Die in Cairo

Disagreeing with the Saudis, Egypt insists that East Jerusalem be the Palestinian capital, making it clear that any economic plan for Gaza is no substitute for a diplomatic plan accepted by the Palestinians

Egypt's President Abdel-Fattah al-Sissi meets with Trump envoy Jason Greenblatt and adviser Jared Kushner at the presidential palace in Cairo, June 21, 2018,
STRINGER/AFP

Saeb Erekat, the chief Palestinian negotiator, has no doubt about the goal of the American “deal of the century.” “Its purpose is to bring down the Palestinian leadership and replace Mahmoud Abbas,” he told a newspaper over the weekend. Erekat is also certain that the Americans plan to bypass the UN refugee agency, the UNRWA, so that money earmarked for refugees goes directly to the countries hosting them. In this way, they would pull the rug out from under the refugee problem, one of the toughest issues in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

As a senior PA official told Haaretz, “the Palestinian Authority’s fear is what Palestinian officials call the Israeli, American, Saudi and Egyptian conspiracy, whose goal is to divide Gaza from the West Bank and provide an economic solution for Gaza while strengthening Hamas, thus avoiding diplomatic negotiations over the future of Palestine.”

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This fear is apparently justified. Based on reports in the Egyptian media that rely on Western diplomats, the American plan seeks to establish a free-trade zone between the Gaza Strip and El-Arish in Sinai where five large industrial projects will be established. In accordance with the Israeli demand, these projects will be established in Egypt, which will oversee operations and the passage of workers from Gaza to Sinai.

Two-thirds of the workers will come from Gaza and one-third from Sinai. Later, a joint Egyptian-Palestinian port and solar-energy station will be built, and if everything goes as planned, an airport will be built. The government in Gaza will remain under Hamas’ control but be in full coordination with Egypt, which in recent months has been in intense talks with Hamas on control procedures at the border crossings.

Protesters demanding the lifting of sanctions on Gaza Strip, in the West Bank city of Ramallah, June 12, 2018.
Majdi Mohammed/AP

Egypt, which opened the Rafah crossing in mid-May in honor of Ramadan, will keep the crossings open for two more months until the Id al-Adha holiday, with the intention of leaving it open indefinitely. The crossing is now open not only for people but also for goods and construction materials, against Israel’s wishes. Thus Egypt is making clear to Israel that the closure policy on Gaza might collapse if Israel doesn’t agree to make things considerably easier for the Gazans.

A bit of reconciliation

This is also a clear message to the PA that if President Abbas continues to hinder reconciliation between Hamas and Fatah, Gaza will be cut off from the West Bank and this will end the unification process for the two parts of Palestine.

It seems that the Egyptian message has been heard, and according to a senior Fatah official in the West Bank, Yahya Rabah, the PA will begin paying the salaries to Gaza officials that it had suspended. Also, in coordination with Egypt, Fatah-Hamas reconciliation talks will resume with the goal of reviving the national-unity government in Gaza.

Meanwhile, Egypt, which is particularly worried about developments in Gaza, doesn’t fully accept the U.S. initiative. On Thursday, after a meeting between Egyptian President Abel-Fattah al-Sissi, Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry and intelligence chief Abbas Kamel, who’s in charge of the Palestinian issue, presidential spokesman Bassam Radi announced: “Egypt supports all efforts and initiatives to reach a comprehensive agreement, based on international resolutions made in the past and on the principle of two states for two peoples in the 1967 borders, with East Jerusalem as the capital of Palestine.”

This position makes clear that Egypt doesn’t support the Saudi idea of Abu Dis as the Palestinian capital, and that any economic plan for Gaza won’t be a substitute for a diplomatic plan accepted by the Palestinians. Thus Egypt divides the continuation of the process into two parts: assistance to Gaza and development of its economy as part of bolstering the border between it and Gaza, and comprehensive diplomatic negotiations independent of Gaza’s economy.

Abdullah’s angst

King Abdullah of Jordan, who also met with U.S. envoys Jared Kushner and Jason Greenblatt, is worried mainly about the Saudi intent to remove Jordan’s patronage at the holy places in Jerusalem, which it was promised in the Israel-Jordan peace agreement. Jordan is also worried about Israeli control over the Jordan Valley as part of a peace agreement. In the short term, Abdullah doesn’t oppose the separate economic development of Gaza, but he supports the traditional Arab position that Gaza and the West Bank not be separate entities.

Palestinians take part in a protest calling on Abbas to lift the sanctions on Gaza Strip, in Ramallah, June 23, 2018.
\ MOHAMAD TOROKMAN/ REUTERS

According to Arab sources, Saudi King Salman and his son, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, seem to disagree over this issue. While Mohammed is an enthusiastic supporter of the American plan and the separation of Gaza from the West Bank, his father is concerned about the criticism he could expect if he relinquished the principles of the 2002 Saudi peace initiative by splitting the “Palestinian problem” into two parts and abandoning the position that East Jerusalem be the capital of Palestine.

But it’s not only the “deal of the century” that’s a source of dispute among Arab leaders. President Donald Trump’s statement that he will ask Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Qatar to share in funding new projects in Gaza has encountered stiff opposition from Saudi Arabia and the UAE. The two countries have made clear to U.S. envoys that Qatar’s involvement will mean Iran entering Gaza by the back door. They say they can handle the funding – an estimated $1 billion – on their own if Egypt and Israel agree.

The UAE announced last year that it’s willing allocate $40 million for a power station, and that it would contribute some $15 million to fund the administration in Gaza.

While the Arab-American dispute over the final resolution of the Palestine problem is playing into Israel’s hands, Israel will have to decide about Gaza. Focusing a solution in Gaza on economic projects supposedly plays into Israel’s hands in that it makes Gaza a humanitarian issue and not a diplomatic one. But political wrangling in Israel might torpedo this move in a way that puts Israel into a military confrontation with Gaza, while also pitting Israel against Washington.