The Arabist

The Arabist

By Issandr El Amrani and friends.

Egypt, Palestine, Israel and the Americans

This Haaretz report from Saturday bears a little analysis:

Egypt has ceased efforts to mediate the formation of a national unity government between the rival Palestinian factions Hamas and Fatah, Israel Radio reported on Saturday.

Officials who met with the senior echelon of Egyptian intelligence said that Cairo is instead proposing that two separate governments ? the Hamas regime in Gaza and the Fatah-led Palestinian Authority in the West Bank ? continue to function until general elections are held.

In parallel, Egypt would like to see the Palestinian factions agree on the formation of a committee that will lay the groundwork for the next elections as well as the rehabilitation of the Gaza Strip, Israel Radio reported.

Hamas has informed the Egyptians that it is demanding that Fatah release all of the group's members that are currently in Palestinian Authority prisons before the resumption of reconciliation talks in Cairo, which is scheduled for to take place in two weeks.

There have been a lot of contradictory signals being sent in recent weeks - Egypt is bent on reconciliation by July 7, then negotiations set to restart on July 25; Shalit about to be transferred to Egypt and Mubarak says he is fine, then Egypt says Israel scuttled deal while Hamas says Mubarak has no idea about Shalit's status; Hamas and Fatah reconcile, then a West Bank crackdown on Hamas intensifies (and vice-versa in Gaza); and so on. How to make sense of it all?

The important thing, in my opinion, is that this report is probably the most accurate you can get: there will be no Palestinian reconciliation until after elections are held, by January 2010, if they are held. But it's important for the Egyptians to have a mechanism to keep Palestinian reconciliation talks alive, and a mechanism for easing the blockade on Gaza (given that Egypt will not unilaterally do that, for its own interests and because of fear of Israeli and US retribution). Thus the coordination mechanism, which will also be an opportunity, depending on how it is formed, for continuous Fatah-Hamas interaction. There are those within Hamas and Fatah (I have spoken to some of them) who are looking to the post-Mahmoud Abbas period in which reconciliation may be possible. Mahmoud Abbas is politically finished among his constituency (Fatah), for the most part, but has survived because he is most acceptable to Israel, the US, and the weak Europeans. At least when combined with the acceptable "competent" technocrat Salam Fayyad.

Palestinian reconciliation may or may not be possible in principle (I think it is with new leadership in Fatah and some humility and mea culpas from Hamas), but right now both sides appear to have more to gain fighting each other rather than fighting the larger battle for Palestinian freedom. The international context is key: Egypt wants Palestinian reconciliation eventually — it does not want a permanent "Islamic Emirate of Gaza" where Israel could easily create a humanitarian crisis sending Gazans into Sinai — but cannot have it now, because having Palestinian reconciliation now necessarily means presenting the Obama administration with a unity government they are not able to accept (although they should) for domestic political reasons, i.e. the Israel lobbies (I think AIPAC and J Street would sing to the same tune here). Not that they would have to fund it — of course the US and probably the EU would not send money to a government that included Hamas — but it's that the entire US push for a Middle East Peace Process (MEPP) would fall apart. Egypt wants, and it is delighted to see, such a process once again taking place seriously, with the US involved in the region in a more positive way. Its own relationship with Washington, from the regime's perspective, has been substantively improved (the topic of another post) and it wants to maintain that momentum.

Hence, no Palestinian reconciliation, but instead a return to a full-blown MEPP with Mahmoud Abbas taking the lead on negotiations, with the possibility that he might be able to convince Hamas to accept a final status solution. What Obama is trying to engineer is, partly building on the work of the Bush administration, a moving of the goalposts for such a solution: in other words, to reduce Palestinian expectations on such a deal. Palestinian elections might then be taken as a referendum on the peace deal, although I very much doubt such a deal is possible by January 2010, and remove Hamas' claim to be representing the majority of Palestians (at least those in the OPTs). Even so, an election rigged for Fatah, or genuinely won by Fatah (which will be buoyed by aid cash), or in which Hamas can be convinced to take a lower profile (perhaps in exchange for a lesser grip on Gaza) would reassert Mahmoud Abbas' moral authority and ability to negotiate a deal with Israel.

Readers of this blog know that I do not believe Israel is capable or willing to produce a deal remotely acceptable to Palestinians at this time (and even so, I still resist being a one-stater! Sometimes I wonder why.) But that's not the case of other people, those who are either optimistic or simply cynical about imposing a deal on Palestinians. And for Egypt at least, there is value in stretching out the peace-processing: even if no deal is reached, the Egyptians have put themselves at the core of this round of MEPP negotiations as Hamas' only accepted (by the international community) interlocutor and, increasingly, as a tacit ally of Israel on geostrategic issues (even if Egypt and Israel will remain each other's natural enemy for a long time). At stake here are not only Iran's rise, but more generally the discrediting of the "moderate" Arab regimes in the eye of their populations and the ease by which movements like Hamas and Hizbullah (and the cynical government of Iran) can manipulate it.

To take a more long view, it is also about the American presence in the Middle East; these regimes are incapable to imagine a world without it, an idea that has become increasingly powerful not only for Osama bin Laden (who wanted the US out of the Gulf) or Iran (ditto for different reasons), but also for the engaged Arab citizen for whom the US presence is equated with war, invasions, and support for authoritarian regimes.

This — and not an end to the Israeli-Arab conflict being in sight — is what the revival of the MEPP and the shenanigans and feints of mediators like Egypt are about.