Egypt tries to restart Palestinian, Israel peace talks
Cairo - Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s latest peace push, coordinated with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, is at least likely to bring the Palestinians and the Israelis back to the negotiating table, sources and analysts say.
“Abbas was in Cairo only days before President Sisi called on the Palestinians and the Israelis to work together to achieve peace,” Palestinian Ambassador to Egypt Jamal al-Shoubaki said. “Both presidents discussed their visions for coordinating their political moves; ending the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories and ending inter-Palestinian rifts.”
Sisi put the stalled Palestinian- Israeli peace process back on the agenda on May 17th by calling for the two sides to work together to make peace.
Sisi said peacemaking would give the Palestinians hope, give the Israelis security and open a new chapter in Israeli-Arab relations.
His speech did not, however, come by chance or without calculation, experts said. He must have taken his cue from, apart from Abbas, several parties, including Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, the leaders of the Palestinian movement Hamas, which controls the Gaza Strip, and international players, including the United States.
Soon after Sisi made his call for peace, it was picked up by Netanyahu, who lauded the Egyptian president’s leadership and said he planned to visit Egypt with opposition leader Isaac Herzog to meet Sisi and discuss means of bringing Palestinian-Israeli peacemaking back on track, according to Israeli media. A short time later the Egyptian government denied plans for any meetings between Sisi and Israeli leaders after after that, US Secretary of State John Kerry flew to Cairo to discuss, among other things, Sisi’s peace push.
On June 13th, a delegation from Fatah, Abbas’ movement, arrived in Cairo for meetings with Egyptian officials before heading to Doha to meet Hamas representatives, according to Mohammad Shtayyeh, a member of Fatah’s Central Committee. He was quoted by Turkey’s Anadolu Agency as saying that meetings with the Egyptian officials would focus on inter-Palestinian reconciliation.
Palestinian-Israeli peacemaking came to a halt in April 2014 after Fatah and Hamas reached a unity agreement after years of tension. The deal came about because of the open door for inter-Palestinian reconciliation.
Nevertheless, the agreement angered Netanyahu, who said Abbas had preferred reconciliation with Hamas to peace with Israel even as Tel Aviv made a continuation of peace talks with the Palestinians conditional on Palestinian unity.
Palestinian unity featured highly in Sisi’s May 17th address. He called on Palestinian factions to get over their differences and solve their disagreements.
Analysts in Cairo say Egypt is more capable than ever before of bringing Palestinian factions closer together because it enjoys strong ties with all factions.
“Egypt talks to Hamas, talks to Fatah and talks to all other minor Palestinian factions,” Saad al-Zunt, the head of local think-tank Centre for Political Studies, said. “It also has strong ties with Israel.”
On June 5th, Hamas deputy head Ismail Haniyeh said the movement was open to Egyptian efforts to bring Palestinian factions together. “We have taken the decision to build Palestinian national unity on solid foundations,” Haniyeh said at a rally in Gaza. “We welcome any Arab and Egyptian efforts for resuming inter-Palestinian talks.”
Egypt has been tightening pressure around Gaza, especially since Sisi came to power in 2013, to, among other things, convince Hamas to mend fences with Fatah, observers say.
After two years of an almost full closure of the Rafah crossing, Gaza’s only gate into the outside world, Hamas seems to be more ready to listen to Cairo. Several Hamas leaders were in Cairo in March and met Egyptian intelligence officials. Abbas is also a frequent guest in Cairo.
Egypt in 1979 became the first Arab country to sign a peace treaty with Israel. This peace was always described as “cold” but, according to Israeli officials, this peace is far warmer now than ever before. The two countries have strong security coordination, especially in the Sinai peninsula, where Egypt is fighting a branch of the Islamic State (ISIS).
Whether Cairo will succeed in helping the Palestinians and the Israelis reach a deal is uncertain and depends on whether both sides want a deal, observers say.
Egypt does not have a specific peace initiative to offer the Palestinians and the Israelis, according to a senior Egyptian Foreign Ministry source who requested anonymity.
Despite this, the same source said that Cairo can work out an initiative when it makes sure that the Palestinians and the Israelis want to go back to the negotiating table.
Regardless of whether this will happen, Sisi has received what he wanted from offering an olive branch to the Palestinians and the Israelis, some people say.
Sisi wants to project the image of a man of peace. He told a US newspaper two years ago that he expects to be killed by Islamic radicals exactly as Egypt’s president Anwar Sadat was in 1981, after making peace with Israel.
Some analysts are not ready to buy into Sisi’s peace efforts. One of them is Fouad Allam, a veteran security expert, who says the president’s push will continue to be a mere dream.
“The Palestinians will always be divided. They have always been so in the past and will continue to be so forever,” Allam said. “Israel will never cede land to the Palestinians either. The experiences of the past teach us many lessons in this regard.”