Wednesday,19 September, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1344, (11 - 17 May 2017)
Wednesday,19 September, 2018
Issue 1344, (11 - 17 May 2017)

Ahram Weekly

New regional realignment

A new strategic alignment between the United States and the Middle East region is shaping up. It is one that will present Egypt with difficult choices, writes Hussein Haridy

The press secretary of the White House put out a statement 4 May concerning the first foreign trips that President Donald Trump would undertake shortly. According to the statement, President Trump would fly to Saudi Arabia (23 May), then Israel and the Palestinian Authority (PA) in Ramallah. From the Middle East, he will travel to the Vatican, Italy and Belgium. During his stay in Europe the US president will take part in both a NATO summit in Brussels and a G-7 summit in Italy.

The visits to the Middle East would herald a new chapter in the history of the troubled region. According to official American sources, the main topics in the discussions President Trump would conduct while in Riyadh and Tel Aviv would concentrate on Iran and fighting the Islamic State (IS) group, plus trying to bring the Palestinians and the Israelis back to the negotiating table. In Riyadh, President Trump would meet with the leaders of the Gulf Cooperation Council as well as leaders from the Muslim world.

Early this month, the White House hosted PA President Mahmoud Abbas 3 May in a highly symbolic summit with President Trump, the first for the Palestinian leader. Surely the meeting gave him a much-needed political boost among the various Palestinian factions and among the Palestinians themselves in a highly-troubled and confused regional context that has relegated the Palestinian problem to almost near oblivion during the last six years and a half. The US-Palestinian summit came two days after Hamas published a new political charter in which it accepted, for the first time since its establishment in December 1987, a Palestine within the June 1967 borders. In addition, it stressed the fact that it is against Zionism, not Jews — something bordering on a revolution in the ideology of this Palestinian resistance movement. And whereas its previous charter affirmed the relation between Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood, the new political document that was announced in Doha early May only spoke of Hamas as a national liberation movement with Islamic roots.

These developments and the American plan of containing Iran and terrorist groups in the Middle East put the region on a new trajectory. Whether this plan would bring security and stability to the region remains to be seen. That would largely depend on a well-thought out American strategy that does not rank the Palestinian problem as a low strategic priority compared to containing Iran, for example.

The main objective of the first Trump tour in the Middle East is to form a certain kind of unofficial alliance between “Sunni” Arab states and Israel in the short term while working on the modalities of an American plan to revive the moribund Palestinian-Israeli peace negotiations in the medium term. Despite the fact that both President Trump and President Abbas “reaffirmed the commitment… to achieving a genuine and lasting peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians”, President Trump is “personally committed to helping Israelis and Palestinians achieve a comprehensive peace”. Hopefully, the US administration would unveil a plan of how to proceed on this difficult road during the presence of President Trump in Ramallah. And let us hope that the US president would not surprise the world when in Israel and announce that the United States decided to move its embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. That would dramatically complicate the situation, not only in Palestine, but throughout the Arab world. I hope the Americans prove intelligent enough not to make such a decision in the present regional context and in the absence of any serious Israeli intentions to withdraw from the occupied territories and agree to the establishment of an independent Palestinian state.

The summit meeting in Riyadh with the leaders of the Gulf Cooperation Council is not unprecedented. Former president Barack Obama had gone to Saudi Arabia in May 2016 where he met with his Gulf counterparts to assure them of American support and reaffirm the strong security commitments between the United States and the GCC in the face of Iran and its proxies. This overriding objective remains the same as far as American strategy in the Middle East is concerned. This time around, the Trump administration would work seriously to cement an unannounced alliance between these Arab countries and Israel. It seems that there is something akin to such a kind of alliance already. Whether the United States is in a position to make a linkage between this alliance and a peace deal between the Palestinians and the Israelis is a point difficult to ascertain at the present moment. Things could be clearer shortly. The main concern, at least from an Egyptian and a Palestinian point of view, is the lack, so far, of a detailed American blueprint on how to proceed on the road to peace between the Palestinians and the Israelis. Furthermore, the fight against terrorism in the Middle East and beyond would become highly challenging if peace in Palestine would remain a distant goal.

It goes without saying that Egyptian foreign policy will have some hard choices to make in the days ahead. On the one hand, it is difficult to imagine Cairo becoming an active partner in the slowly-evolving constellation of forces in the Middle East and the Gulf in the absence of a serious plan to solve the Palestinian problem on the basis of the two-state solution. And on the other hand, it would be called upon to play its part in the new grand regional architecture if it expects economic and financial assistance from the member countries in this new regional alliance. How Cairo will play its few cards in the period separating us from the presidential elections in Egypt in May 2018 will be interesting to monitor. Its options are not that great, I am afraid.

The writer is former assistant to the foreign minister.

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