Tuesday,14 August, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1303, (14 - 20 July 2016)
Tuesday,14 August, 2018
Issue 1303, (14 - 20 July 2016)

Ahram Weekly

Palestine plus

Egypt and Israel are redrawing their relationship in fundamental ways, writes Dina Ezzat

Al-Ahram Weekly

Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukri’s visit to Israel on Sunday was the first by Egypt’s most senior diplomat in close to a decade and the first visit by a leading Egyptian official to Israel since the 2011 January Revolution.

A Foreign Ministry spokesman said the one-day visit aimed to “give a push to the Palestinian-Israeli peace process, in addition to discussing several files related to the political aspects of bilateral relations and the regional situation”.

Informed sources say the Palestinian file was a key issue in the talks Shoukri held with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, which were “almost exclusively on a tête-a tête-basis” according to the office of the spokesman of the foreign minister. The same sources add, however, that the Palestinian cause — a long-standing issue that is not expected to see any breakthrough any time soon — was not the central focus of either side.

“This is a matter that has been the subject of thorough Egyptian diplomatic attention for decades and it will continue to be so though we know, like everyone else, it is a very complex file and current geo-political realities are not helping to bring Palestinians and Israelis towards a final and fair settlement,” said an Egyptian diplomat. The point, he added, is to prevent “the situation from getting more complicated and harder to resolve”.

It was the same point that prompted Paris to table an initiative for Palestinian-Israeli peace talks which brought 28 countries and three key international and regional organisations to Paris on 3 June despite the fact the likelihood of any serious breakthrough is close to zero. The worry in Paris is that should the Palestinian file be completely shelved by international diplomacy the result might be an eruption of violent anger in the occupied territories.

In this context, say Egyptian diplomats, Shoukri’s visit to Israel on Sunday and his earlier visit to the Palestinian territories where he met Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, “are helpful”.

Yet Cairo’s objectives — as exemplified by Shoukri’s visit and President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi’s earlier call for peace in May — are not identical to those of France.

While Paris is seeking to start a multilateral path to replace the direct bilateral talks that have been pursued since the Oslo Accords, Cairo is seeking a mediating role for Egypt as an adjunct to what would remain essentially bilateral talks, the aim being to alleviate the growing sense of Palestinian frustration which, says one Egyptian diplomat, could lead to  “a situation which is not in the interest of anyone” should it remain unaddressed.

“Yes, we want life to be easier for Palestinians in Gaza and to keep Ramallah from falling into deeper despair,” he said.

To serve this purpose — “something that we do coordinate on with the French” the same diplomat added — Cairo hopes to convene a four-way meeting in Cairo between Al-Sisi, Netanyahu, Abbas and King Abdullah of Jordan.

But while Cairo is convinced a high-level meeting could lend to concrete results in terms of “making the lives of Palestinians better in Gaza and Ramallah”, its optimism is not shared by the Palestinian Authority (PA), let alone the Islamist camp of Hamas and Jihad. 

Following Sunday’s talks in Israel Shoukri has been in contact with Abbas and with his Jordanian and French counterparts Nasser Joudah and Jean-Marc Ayrault.

“Abbas is still reluctant but he might have to come to Cairo for a meeting with Al-Sisi and Abdullah out of courtesy to Egypt. Any meeting with Netanyahu, however, will probably be judged politically too pricy. Sameh Shoukri has already told him Netanyahu is unwilling to enter into any serious political engagement,” says an informed Palestinian source.

“Abbas is sick and tired of endless useless meetings with Netanyahu. What he wants is a process based on an international diplomatic effort similar to that which led to the deal between the West and Iran,” added the source.

Meanwhile, Magdi Khaldi, diplomatic advisor to the Palestinian president, has neither confirmed nor ruled out the possibility of Abbas visiting Cairo.

“We appreciate Egyptian efforts and hope that they will help in creating an international political-diplomatic mechanism that allows for the fulfillment of international legitimacy and the pursuit of a two-state solution on the basis of the 1967 borders,” says Khaldi.

Khaldi said the Palestinian Authority views the French Initiative in a more favourable light than the Quartet which has been criticised by the PA and in other Arab diplomatic quarters for a recent statement that failed to recognise the hardships faced by Palestinians under Israeli occupation.

Palestinian political analyst Helmi Moussa believes there no chance of Netanyahu pursuing a political settlement with the Palestinians. The best that can be hoped for, he says, is that Netanyahu will allow some conditional and temporary improvement to the humanitarian situation.

“There are no signs whatsoever that either he or his coalition can conclude a peace deal with the Palestinians,” says Moussa.

According to Moussa, Shoukri had no alternative but to refer to the Palestinian situation during his visit to Israel even if its purpose was to discuss other, unrelated bilateral and regional matters.

Cairo was certainly keen to hear the Israeli view on Ethiopia’s continued construction of the Grand Renaissance Dam which Egypt fears could deprive it of up to 20 per cent of its already inadequate annual share of Nile water. Tellingly, Shoukri arrived in Israel less than 24 hours after Netanyahu returned from a high-profile visit to Nile Basin countries, including Ethiopia.

Egypt would have been particularly keen to be briefed on the kind of agreements Israel might have reached with Nile Basin countries to transfer advanced water-saving irrigation and purification know-how.

Egyptian officials who spoke to Al-Ahram Weekly on condition of anonymity declined to use the word mediation when referring to Israel’s role between Egypt and Ethiopia, arguing that to do so would be an exaggeration given that Egypt is in direct contact with Ethiopia at the highest levels.

“But the issue is on the agenda of our talks with several countries and yes, that includes Israel which has very special relations with Ethiopia and has offered to help find a technical exit out of the current crisis,” conceded one official.

He acknowledged that it was important for Cairo to listen to what Netanyahu had to relay ahead of the Nile Basin country meeting that had been scheduled for today in Uganda.

Cairo will also have been keen to assess Israeli-Turkish relations against a backdrop in which Saudi Arabia and the US are both seeking an end to the diplomatic hostility that broke out between Cairo and Ankara following the ouster of Mohamed Morsi.

“Israel and Turkey are discussing ways to improve the humanitarian situation in Gaza and Cairo would naturally want to know about their plans,” says a Turkish diplomat.

Cairo’s long list of bilateral issues would also include security coordination and intelligence operations to eliminate the militant Islamist presence in Sinai; concern over the possible elimination of the MFO mission on the borders between Egypt and Israel; plans to expand economic cooperation between the two countries and the joint anti-Iranian diplomatic-intelligence offensive to which other leading Arab countries, including Saudi Arabia, are party.

The timing and outcome of the Shoukri visit to Israel, says Moussa, has granted Netanyahu a considerable diplomatic victory on the Arab front in the wake of his ground-breaking tour of Africa.

“We are talking about the foreign minister of Egypt, and we are talking about the first such visit in close to ten years,” stresses Moussa. “Of course it’s significant, and more so if it leads to a visit by Netanyahu to Egypt in the coming weeks as is expected.”

Egyptian officials acknowledge the visit afforded Israel’s prime minister a political card that he will wave at his coalition members as much as at his foes. But, they say, it also heralded Egypt’s resumption of direct involvement in the Palestinian file and furthered coordination over crucial national security issues that include managing the situation in Sinai and helping find a solution to the problems posed by the construction of the Grand Renaissance Dam and Egypt’s growing water problem. (see pp.6-7)

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