Tuesday,21 August, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1297, (26 May - 1 June 2016)
Tuesday,21 August, 2018
Issue 1297, (26 May - 1 June 2016)

Ahram Weekly

Seeking traction on peace

Dina Ezzat asks whether Egypt’s peace initiative can circumvent Israel’s new Netanyahu-Lieberman coalition

Al-Ahram Weekly

It is less than a week since President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi stretched a generous hand, some say a very generous hand, to Israel and pledged to throw Cairo’s weight behind the Palestinian Authority (PA) in the hope of concluding a peace deal that could end the Palestinian-Israeli struggle once and for all.

Today there are more questions than answers — in Cairo, the PA, Israeli think tanks and concerned world capitals — about the future of the initiative. Al-Sisi appears to be attempting to create a parallel track to the long stalemated Arab peace initiative and to the French initiative of President François Hollande.

The Arab Summit adopted the Arab peace initiative, at Riyadh’s request, in Beirut in 2002. Regarding the French initiative, Hollande is planning to host a ministerial meeting on 3 June to prepare for a Middle East peace summit later this year.

Al-Sisi and his diplomatic aides consulted with Israel before the initiative was proposed, according to an informed Arab-Israeli politician. When Al-Sisi offered his help to reach a historic Palestinian-Israeli deal, one that would open the doors to a “warmer peace” between Israel and the Arab countries, he was expecting Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu to enter into a coalition with opposition leader Isaac Herzog.

This was what Al-Sisi’s aides had predicted, and what the envoys Netanyahu had dispatched to Cairo said Israel’s prime minister was planning.

“We were told it was a deal already in the making,” said an informed Egyptian diplomatic source. 

But Herzog and Netanyahu failed to reach a deal. Netanyahu then opted to pass the Ministry of Defence to Avigdor Lieberman, an extreme hawk notorious for discriminatory statements targeting the Palestinians in particular, and Arabs in general.

“This was bad news. Lieberman was boycotted by Arab countries when he served as foreign minister. His presence in the Israeli government places further obstacles in the way of a serious peace deal,” said the Egyptian diplomatic source.

Other diplomats say that the Egyptian Foreign Ministry was doubtful about the ability and will of Netanyahu to pursue a reasonable peace deal. But the feeling at the presidential palace was that excessive caution on questions of foreign policy have served only to prolong the Arab-Israeli conflict, and that “it needed a high-level, brave political initiative to make things happen”.

The Egyptian diplomat who spoke to Al-Ahram Weekly said he was “not aware” of any plans for Al-Sisi to visit Jerusalem in the near future, though just such a visit was mooted by TV anchor Ibrahim Eissa last week.

What he is “aware of” is that Netanyahu is “expected” to visit Egypt some time next month and that he has said that Israel wants to see an end to “the practice established during the rule of Hosni Mubarak that any visit by the president of Egypt to Israel be conditional on a major breakthrough in Palestinian-Israeli talks”.

During 30 years in office Mubarak resisted intense pressure from the US and Israel to visit Israel. He made a brief exception in 1995 when he attended the funeral of Labour leader Yitzhak Rabin after he was assassinated by a Jewish extremist in Tel Aviv.

“That was not a visit in the political sense. Mubarak arrived at the airport with other world leaders, went straight to the funeral and immediately returned to Egypt,” the diplomat said.

Cairo-based Western diplomats say that Al-Sisi is a lot more open to the idea of visiting Israel than Mubarak ever was.

 “There are new dynamics in bilateral relations between Egypt and Israel. The Netanyahu government has been very supportive of Egypt’s efforts to combat radical militant groups in Sinai and has spoken positively of the Egyptian regime’s commitment to Middle East peace and stability, especially in Washington,” said one European ambassador.

Increased levels of Egyptian-Israeli security and intelligence cooperation are being matched, say official and business sources, by trade and technical cooperation.

The Egyptian diplomat said Cairo views cooperation with Israel “realistically”.

“It has proven very useful, allowing for an expansion of Egypt’s military presence in Sinai way beyond the stipulations of the Egyptian-Israeli peace agreement. Without this expansion it would have been impossible to combat militant terror groups in the peninsula,” he said.

“Yes, there is a surge in cooperation between the two countries, and Egypt’s political leadership is convinced that this could open the door to a new beginning for the long-stalled peace talks between the Palestinians and Israel. And this is particularly important now that the Palestinian cause has effectively fallen from the agenda of international diplomacy.”

It is not a view shared in many world capitals. In Washington, Secretary of State John Kerry has revisited his initial reluctance to take part in the 3 June Paris meeting now that the Netanyahu-Lieberman pact is ringing alarm bells among American diplomats. The apprehension is shared by Paris, which on Monday received a new cold shoulder from Netanyahu who objects to French plans to hold an extended Arab-international peace meeting without the direct participation of Israeli and Palestinian representatives.

Speaking at a joint press conference with visiting French Prime Minister Manuel Valls on Monday, Netanyahu said that he would not subscribe to any meetings on Arab-Israeli peace that were sponsored by the UN or other international bodies. He said he would only agree to direct talks with Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas.

During talks with Valls in Ramallah on Tuesday, Palestinian Authority (PA) Prime Minister Rami Hamadallah openly dismissed the Netanyahu call for direct negotiations with the PA as an open attempt to “buy time” — when time is short , not just for the Palestinians  whose land is being eaten up by illegal settlements, but also for the Israelis who would not be able to “escape the international community” much longer. 

Five years ago, Abbas refused to continue with open-ended, inconclusive peace talks, during which Israel had continued to aggressively build on occupied Palestinian land. But he gave a tentative nod of approval to requests last month by Al-Sisi to agree to talks with Israel. The move was perceived in many capitals, Paris included, as an affront of sorts to the efforts of the French president.

“The initiative of French President François Hollande came against the backdrop of increased European pressure on Israel through a boycott movement of all products originating in the occupied territories,” said a Paris-based Arab diplomat.

She added that the French initiative was offered just as France and some other European countries were threatening to recognise Palestine if Netanyahu refused serious peace talks.

“Hollande would probably not have gone there in the end but the fact is that the diplomatic card was raised, and it was raised at a time when Paris clearly felt Netanyahu was unlikely to make a positive response.”

While the Egyptian diplomat said “Egypt’s political leadership is also uncertain about conferences with many participants”, Cairo made a direct pledge to support the French Initiative during Hollande’s visit last month.

Since then Cairo has noted the lack of impetus growing around the French effort.

“When he spoke last week in Assiut the president said that there is the Arab initiative and the French initiative but it is clear neither is gaining momentum, not in the format in which they were presented anyway.”

This week Cairo received “word from Netanyahu” that he still hopes to bring Herzog on board and would like him to co-manage “direct talks” with the Palestinians with Egyptian mediation.

On Tuesday a senior Israeli diplomat was in Cairo to stress the message.

On Monday afternoon, in a public statement on the development of his government coalition, Netanyahu had said, “The door is still open for Herzog.”

“We will follow and we will talk and we will decide our next step in view of developments in Israel and on what comes out of the Paris meeting,” the Egyptian diplomat said.

The Paris meeting, in which 20 foreign ministers and secretary-generals of regional organisations have agreed to take part, intends to draw up a new blueprint for the resumption of peace talks aimed at creating some sort of a Palestinian state in Gaza and parts of the West Bank.

A source close to the office of Palestinian leader Abbas told the Weekly, “Abu Mazen [Abbas] is depressed.”

He continued, “He knows that Netanyahu is not going to make a peace deal and he knows that it is too late to have a viable Palestinian state given the extent of Israeli settlements. He is in a very tough position, which is why he is willing to give any candid initiative, like that of President Al-Sisi, a try — that is, if Egypt decides to move ahead, though I doubt this will happen.”

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