Egypt holds the keys to Palestinian peace

A more receptive, post-‘Arab Spring’ Egypt can help push the peace process forward after Palestinian factions unify.

unity deal youth - Kieron Monks article
Youth in Palestine finally feel as though their voices are being heard as Hamas and Fatah reconcile. The region has  a real chance for peace, so long as a more receptive Egypt helps it along [EPA]

The long-awaited unity deal between Fatah and Hamas is a statement of intent from both parties, and from the deal’s sponsor – Egypt. By excluding Israel, they are finally speaking to Israel, and you can tell from the alarmed reactions that the message is being heard loud and clear.

Israeli foreign minister (and noted diplomat) Avigdor Lieberman speculated about “hundreds of terrorists” flooding the West Bank. Defence minister Ehud Barak said Israel must use an “iron fist” against this “threat”. Tin hats and dark muttering are the order of the day.

Before last week’s announcement, prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu urged president Abbas to choose Israel, and “peace”, over Hamas. But Abbas is already familiar with Israeli peace. His last trip to Egypt for negotiations was with his opposite number, a visit every bit as insincere as the whole sorry process, and ended with a whimper and a new rash of settlements.

A new Abbas

This time he returns, wreathed in the glow of a genuine achievement that has shocked his own people as much as the Israelis. For once, the Palestinian Authority has put the interests of Palestinians first, and the youth movements who campaigned for national unity finally feel they are being heard.

That the rival factions of Fatah and Hamas were able to reach agreement shows their confidence in a new political landscape. To incur the wrath of Israel and the USA may cripple the embryonic economy of the West Bank, and bring fresh misery to besieged Gaza. They are placing their faith in the Arab Spring, and particularly Egypt, to deliver a just peace. It is a gamble, but to pursue US-mediated talks with Israel any longer would have been delusional and self-defeating.

Riding the crest of its own wave, Egypt is a good ally to have at the moment. Their status is restored as the Arab world’s most powerful voice, and the Palestinian issue has assumed priority status surprisingly quickly after the revolution. A new attitude to the conflict is developing, exemplified by new foreign minister Nabil el-Arabi’s recent statement: “It is time to stop managing the [Israeli-Palestinian] conflict, it’s time to end it.”

That commitment has already been demonstrated by successfully bringing the Palestinian factions together after years of hostility. The agreement is more symbolic than practical, yet it still required Hamas to tacitly endorse engagement with Israel, and Egyptian involvement with Gaza’s internal security. Egyptian mediators recognised the unique opportunity granted by the wave of Arab uprisings; with Hamas weakened by the deterioration in Syria, and Abbas down an ally with the loss of Mubarak, the middlemen in Cairo were shrewd enough to exploit the shared need for new direction.

Egypt has its own reasons to pressure Israel. To implement the reforms demanded by the revolution, it must revise its relations with the Jewish state. Under Sadat and Mubarak, Israel enjoyed preferential trade agreements that include gas deals worth US$700million more than the current contract. Egyptian politicians have been publicly asserting that they are under no obligation to maintain this disadvantageous agreement, and with the urgent need to introduce a minimum wage, welfare and greater social equality, the country cannot afford it. Should Israel’s most essential imports be threatened, that vulnerability will strengthen the Palestinians’ hand.

Ending the siege

On the Egyptian street, the clamour grows louder by the day. Palestinian liberation has found its way on to the agendas of parties across the political spectrum: right and left, new and old, religious and secular. Israeli flags burn in Tahrir Square, and the speeches which emphasise solidarity with Palestinians are cheered the loudest. When thousands march to Gaza on Nakba day, May 15th,  it will be the closest the Arab wave has yet come to lapping at Israel’s shores.

All signs indicate Egypt will continue to make Israel feel the cold. Already their foreign ministry has broken from Mubarak policy by supporting a unilaterally declared Palestinian state and demanding that the US follow suit.

More significantly, they can open the Rafah border and end Israel’s siege of Gaza. Such a move would at a stroke remove a cornerstone of Israeli security policy, weakening their control and exposing them to even harsher international condemnation for the glaring disregard for human rights in the Strip. Such a move would present problems for Egypt too, but official statements indicate it is a case of when, rather than if, the Rafah border will be opened.

How will Israel react? Beyond the hysterical rhetoric, they have already taken concrete steps, withholding an $89million tax payment to the PA which will leave many state employees unpaid. They will hope the withdrawal of support will severely affect their long-time allies, who have become “terrorists” again at a stroke. Beyond disengaging with Palestinians, Israel will likely reduce involvement with the whole Arab region and rely even more heavily on US support.

They are lobbying the Quartet to thwart recognition of the unity government or a unilateral declaration of Palestinian statehood. It will work on the US, which will continue to veto any resolution that would negatively affect Israel, and the White House has already condemned the reconciliation treaty.

The UN and EU may prove harder to convince. EU foreign affairs chief Catherine Ashton has been a vocal critic of Israel’s occupation and siege, while the latest UN Security Council resolution condemning West Bank settlements was unanimous, save for the US veto. The Quartet’s planned talks for April have been postponed but US protection of Israel will certainly receive a stern examination.

Choosing a new path

Having finally cast off US-Israeli sham brokerage and taken a decisive step by themselves, the Palestinian factions must wait while external powers dispute their fate. Their task now is to maintain the uneasy alliance, which will ask searching questions. Hamas insist that un-elected prime minister Salam Fayyad stand down, while Fatah will have problems releasing the thousands of Hamas prisoners they now hold.

The issue of recognising Israel should prove less of a stumbling block. Hamas members were party to the 1993 PLO formal recognition announcement and the demand will likely be removed if a genuine offer is on the table. Neither should they have a problem renouncing violence, given their history of honouring ceasefires.

Israeli ministers have indicated they would consider engaging with Hamas should those demands be met. They too have been granted new options by the Arab Spring. Should their siege of Gaza collapse with the removal of Egyptian participation, and their impunity be weakened by international support for a united, independent Palestinian state, there is an escape route that would deliver security and legitimacy.

The Arab League’s long-standing offer to Israel  full, normalised relations with all Arab states in exchange for the return of all territories occupied since 1967 would finally make Israel a part of the Middle East. Instead of fearing the rise of democracy in the region, they must welcome it and seize the opportunity for a fresh start. The alternative is to remain a pariah state while their allies drop away, and a level of isolation they cannot sustain. With the Cairo agreement, Egypt has set the ball rolling.

Kieron Monks is content manager of This Week in Palestine, an English-language magazine based in Ramallah. His freelance articles have appeared in The Guardian, Observer, New Statesman, Tribune, Ma’an News and many others.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.