U.S. Sees Possible Opportunity in Palestinian Reconciliation Led by Egypt, White House Official Says

Senior White House officials say that although the administration's position is that Hamas must disarm, there is no expectation that it will 'happen overnight'

U.S. President Donald Trump speaks during a meeting with Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah al-Sissi during the United Nations General Assembly, New York, September 20, 2017.
Evan Vucci/AP

Despite Israeli opposition and a decision last week by Israel’s inner security cabinet, the administration of U.S. President Donald Trump is continuing to back Egyptian efforts at reconciliation between Fatah, the West Bank-based party that controls the Palestinian Authority, and Hamas, which controls the Gaza Strip. The Trump administration is determined to make every effort to return the Palestinian Authority to the Gaza Strip.

Senior White House officials said the United States believes that Egyptian mediation between the Palestinian factions has created a possibly positive opportunity, adding that, despite the fact that the administration’s position is that Hamas must disarm, there is no expectation that this will happen by tomorrow.

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“Egypt has helped us crack open a door to Gaza that didn’t exist a few weeks ago, and we see it as a possible opportunity,” said one senior White House official who asked not to be identified due to the diplomatic sensitivity of the matter. “Israelis and Palestinians are so much better off if we can make something out of it.”

On Thursday, the Trump administration’s special envoy on the peace process, Jason Greenblatt, was in Cairo for several hours during which he met with senior officials from Egypt’s general intelligence service who are responsible for reconciliation efforts between Fatah and Hamas. From the Egyptian capital, Greenblatt returned to Jerusalem, where on Sunday he is due to continue talks with Israel and the Palestinians. 

Greenblatt has been in regular contact over the past several days with presidential senior adviser Jared Kushner and has briefed Kushner on his contacts with the Egyptians, the Israelis and the Palestinians. Kushner himself also spoke with several officials in the region about the reconciliation agreement.

The White House official said Greenblatt met in Cairo with the head of Egyptian intelligence, General Khaled Fawzi, to discuss the situation in Gaza and the Fatah-Hamas reconciliation efforts.

"The United States reiterated the importance of any Palestinian government adhering to the Quartet principles, unambiguously and explicitly committing to nonviolence, recognizing the State of Israel, accepting previous agreements and obligations between the parties – including to disarm terrorists – and committing to peaceful negotiations," said the White House official.

He added that Egypt expressed a strong desire to assist the U.S.'s peace efforts, as well as its willingness to help improve the welfare of Palestinians living in Gaza and the West Bank. "The two sides agreed to use their best efforts to work together, as well as with the Palestinian Authority, Israel, Jordan and others in the region to explore all available opportunities to provide humanitarian assistance to Palestinians living in Gaza", the White House official said. "Such assistance will require the international community to join together to fund projects that will tangibly and positively impact all Palestinians. Creating a lasting peace agreement will take time.  All the actions noted above will help pave the way towards a comprehensive peace agreement." 

The Trump administration’s main goal is to enable the Palestinian Authority to exert control in Gaza. In the view of the administration, the reconciliation process with Hamas may be one way to accomplish this. “So we want to see if this is really an opportunity or not,” the senior White House official said. “There is no reason to throw it into the garbage without investigating it. We are not nave, but why wouldn’t we want to see if it is an opportunity?”

The reason that the White House is backing the Egyptians and giving the reconciliation process a chance is related to Trump’s desire to advance a peace initiative in the coming months between Israel and the Palestinians. Officials in both Washington and Cairo believe that a renewed foothold for Abbas in the Gaza Strip could be a positive step on the road to renewed peace negotiations.

Referring to the fact that the Palestinian Authority does not control the Gaza Strip, the senior White House official said: “Gaza is a key complication in getting a peace deal and it will remain a complication during the negotiations, but it has to be fixed if we are to succeed. In order to get a peace deal, the PA needs to be in control. All terrorists will have to disarm, but it won’t happen overnight. Everybody knows that.”

On Thursday, before leaving for Cairo, Greenblatt released a statement that was the first reaction by the American administration to the signing of the reconciliation agreement between Fatah and Hamas. He underlined the importance of restoring civilian and security control of Gaza to the Palestinian Authority and repeated the U.S. position, which has been unchanged since 2005, that any Palestinian government must recognize Israel, abandon violence and commit to prior agreements including the provision involving the disarming of terrorists. In his statement, Greenblatt also said if Hamas wishes to be part of the Palestinian government, it must accept these conditions.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as well as Education Minister Naftali Bennett and several other senior cabinet members were quick to interpret the remarks as stating that the United States was adopting the decision of Israel’s inner security cabinet last Tuesday resolving not to engage in diplomatic negotiations with the Palestinians as long as Hamas does not recognize Israel and disarm. Greenblatt’s statement did not include a reference to future negotiations, however, and did not link the reconciliation agreement to any future resumption of peace talks with Israel.

In addition, the Americans have imposed conditions on Hamas only if it is part of the Palestinian government, while Israel has imposed broader conditions relating to any Palestinian government that gets support from Hamas, even if Hamas is not part of it.

On Thursday night, U.S. State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said Greenblatt’s statement contained nothing new and instead constituted a restatement of longstanding American policy. “For some reason, some people had been asleep and didn’t realize that we had stood behind those points previously,” she said. “Our conversations with the Israelis and Palestinians are ongoing. That remains, as you well know, one of the President’s top priorities, one of his top ambitions when it comes to foreign policy – to try to bring Middle East peace.”