Friday,21 September, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1339, (6 - 12 April 2017)
Friday,21 September, 2018
Issue 1339, (6 - 12 April 2017)

Ahram Weekly

The regional settlement

Trump wants a new “grand alliance” in the Middle East with Tel Aviv at its centre. It’s an old idea and one Egypt is unlikely to join and make work

President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi went to Washington to meet President Donald Trump at the Oval Office — a first for the Egyptian president since 2014 when he was elected by the Egyptian people to lead the country out of the political, economic and financial mess of the previous three years. The official invitation of President Trump puts an end to almost 18 years of tense relations between two “strategic allies”, the United States and Egypt. Those years, if they have proven anything, demonstrate that these relations need strengthening and redefinition.

Hopefully, the American-Egyptian summit that took place early this week in Washington will contribute to this much-needed process of redefinition. The Middle East and the world are both different today from what they had been when the two countries embarked on a new course in their tumultuous relations in the mid-1950s and throughout the 1960s. Going back over the years from 1948, the date of the establishment of the Jewish state, till today the only constant — or put differently, the main determinant — in the bilateral relations between Washington and Cairo has always been the security of Israel and the Egyptian role in providing for such security, either through direct action or as a catalyst among Arab countries to ensure that Israel would be integrated in the region. That has been the driving force behind US strategy in the Middle East, as far as its policies towards Egypt are concerned. This trend gained greater significance with the July Revolution in 1952. These policies towards Egypt have been predicated on decoupling Egypt’s historic commitments towards the Palestinians and US steadfast support of Israel. Many a time, Washington did not factor in that this stems, in large part, from Egypt’s role in finding an honourable solution to the Palestinian problem.

This failure on the part of the Americans proved to be a stumbling block in face of various US attempts to create a regional order in the Middle East whose main aim has always been to integrate Israel prior to any permanent settlement of the Palestinian question, for there is, undoubtedly, a “Palestinian question” from the standpoint of Egypt and the Arab world that must be resolved. During the Cold War years, this imaginary regional order was targeted against the former Soviet Union and the threat of international communism spreading south of the Soviet Union. The United States and the West had wanted to set up what was called the “Northern Tier”. Cairo, under the leadership of Gamal Abdel-Nasser, had not shared the fears of the West and made it clear that it wanted to keep Egypt out of any entangling military alliances against third powers that did not pose a direct threat to the security and territorial integrity of Egypt and other Arab powers. The question uppermost was about the Palestinians and about Israeli expansionism. These two issues have been central to Egypt’s strategy in the Middle East ever since.

Even during Anwar Al-Sadat’s years from 1974 to 1979, the year Cairo signed the first ever Arab peace treaty with the Jewish state, and all the years since, these two questions have remained unresolved. I doubt if Egypt will ever accept such an arrangement where the Jewish state is the centre around which Arab states revolve, all the more so in the absence of a permanent political solution to the Palestinian question.

Lately, the new US administration of President Trump has revived this strategic vision by talking of a grand regional order that would include a political settlement of the Palestinian problem. What has not been mentioned is that such a settlement would be according to conditions laid down by the Jabotinsky wing within the Israeli extreme right government headed by current Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu. The latter has been advocating such an idea, and stressed it during his talks with President Trump in mid-February. The two leaders spoke of a grand alliance that would comprise the United States and Israel, on the one hand, and Egypt, Jordan and the member states of the Gulf Cooperation Council on the other. Both leaders have spoken of an alliance with Sunni Arab states against new enemies; namely, Shia Iran and what the US president had called “radical Islamic terrorism”. This “grand” vision has been on the table and it seems it has become a vision that will be negotiated with the Arabs in the next few years.

Some Arabs will gladly welcome it as a security guarantee against what they have perceived as an expansionist Iran. However, it is difficult to imagine Egypt a member in such a regional order in the absence of a political settlement to the Palestinian question based on the two-state solution, and without answering the perennial question of the final delineation of the geopolitical borders of the Jewish state.

The writer is former assistant to the foreign minister.

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