Egypt’s bid to revive Israeli-Palestinian peace talks has risks and benefits
Egypt’s push to get moribund Israeli- Palestinian peace talks moving gained some visibility in the Arab world and Washington, enhancing Cairo’s importance and prestige. However, given Israel’s far-right government and the split within the Palestinian leadership, it is doubtful that tangible results can be achieved and failure could redound on Cairo.
The visit by Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry to Israel in July — the first time Egypt’s highest ranking diplomat had travelled to Israel in more than a decade — was a surprise to many but in some respects it should not have been. Since President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi ousted Muhammad Morsi from power in 2013, relations between Egypt and Israel have warmed, primarily because of the terrorist threat in the Sinai and mutual antipathy towards Hamas, which controls the Gaza Strip.
Israel and Egypt have informally agreed to temporarily alter security aspects of the 1979 Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty that restricts the number of troops and equipment in parts of the Sinai to allow Egyptian security forces to deploy more assets near the Israeli border to combat the Wilayat Sinai, the terrorist group affiliated with the Islamic State (ISIS).
Egypt has destroyed numerous tunnels that had allowed smuggled goods, weapons and people to move between the Sinai and Gaza. Its efforts have been appreciated by Israel.
Sisi and Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu have a mutual interest in such cooperation and the two reportedly frequently speak on the phone. Achieving a Palestinian-Israeli deal, however, is more difficult.
Both Egypt and Israel have an interest in showing the world that they are pursuing an Israeli-Palestinian deal. For the Egyptians, the Palestinian issue is their strong suit because of their long-standing ties to Fatah and the Palestinian Authority led by Mahmoud Abbas and their ability to influence the Israelis to some degree. The Palestinian issue still unifies the Arab world while other issues in the region, such as the Syrian conflict, are divisive.
By fostering good relations with Israel, Egypt can use the overture to deflect charges in Washington about its human rights record.
For the Israelis, a revival of the Palestinian peace process with the Egyptians can show that the government has friends in the Arab world and is not opposed to peace. Israel prefers working with Egypt over cooperating with international efforts, such as the French initiative which Israel sees as pressuring it to make concessions.
Despite these positives, it is not clear that Egypt will be successful in moving the Israeli-Palestinian peace track forward.
Egypt, while reaching out to the Israelis, has not bucked the Arab consensus and is unlikely to do so. It supports the 2002 Saudi initiative that calls for an independent Palestinian state based on the 1967 borders with East Jerusalem as its capital and a “just” solution for Palestinian refugees. Shoukry reiterated this position during his visit to Israel.
Such a position is welcomed by Fatah and shows the Arab world that Egypt is not caving in to the Israelis but it is doubtful that Israel’s right-wing government would support it.
Although Netanyahu is on record supporting a two-state solution — with numerous caveats — some parties within his fragile coalition clearly do not share this view. The Jewish Home party, led by Naftali Bennett, adamantly opposes giving any territory to the Palestinians. It is not even clear how much of the West Bank Netanyahu would actually relinquish. On the issue of Jerusalem, he has frequently said the city should forever remain united and under Israeli control.
In part because of these positions, Netanyahu’s fellow Likud Party member Moshe Yaalon resigned as Defence minister in May, stating that “extremist and dangerous” elements had taken over the party and the government.
On the Palestinian side, Hamas and Fatah are still split despite having signed a unity agreement. Even if Israel and Fatah, with Egyptian help, were able to reach an agreement, Hamas could use its influence (and arms) to disrupt and scuttle a deal.
So while Egypt might earn points in the Arab world and in Washington for trying to broker an Israeli-Palestinian deal, it might ultimately elicit criticism in Arab circles for indulging Netanyahu and his government without getting much in return.