Can Egypt drive moderate Arab states to talk Mideast peace?

It seems that the only positive element in this situation is the peace treaty with Israel and the sustained security cooperation between the two countries.

Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi (photo credit: REUTERS)
Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi
(photo credit: REUTERS)
GEOPOLITICAL CONSIDERATIONS have made Egypt a key player in the Israeli-Arab conflict but may hamper that country’s ability to broker a regional peace plan based on the bloc of pragmatic (or moderate) Arab States. At issue are not only whether Cairo would be able to take the lead of such a bloc, but also whether such a bloc could even arise given the political and military situation in the Middle East.
Egypt is embroiled in an endless fight against terrorist attacks on all its borders and is, therefore, primarily focused on its own security problems. To the east, it has not yet succeeded in defeating Islamic terrorist groups calling themselves “The Sinai District of the Islamic State” and enjoying the cooperation of Hamas, which also is considered as a hostile entity. To the west, the ongoing civil war in Libya is threatening to spill over that country's long, common border with Egypt. Advanced military equipment and weaponry are still being smuggled by Islamic groups through that border from Libya to Islamic State in Sinai, enabling the terrorist organization to repel attacks from the Egyptian army.
At the same time, relations between Egypt and the Palestinian Authority are strained because PA President Mahmoud Abbas rejected Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s initiative for a summit in Cairo with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and is reluctant to cooperate with Cairo regarding Hamas.
Efforts at fence-mending between Cairo and Gaza are not going well either. Trying a new tack, Sisi is talking with Muhammad Dahlan, Abbas’s arch enemy.
It seems that the only positive element in this sorry situation is the peace treaty with Israel and the sustained security cooperation between the two countries.
Of late, however, a powerful new player has appeared: Vladimir Putin’s Russia.
Much needed Russian military and civilian cooperation has come at a price, though, and Cairo is more and more aligning its positions on Middle East issues with those of Moscow.
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This a direct result of the hostility demonstrated by the Obama administration to Egypt following the ouster of Mohamed Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood supporters.
EGYPT HAS adopted Russia’s position and is now in favor of a political solution in Syria that would not necessarily include getting rid of Bashar Assad.
There are signs of growing cooperation regarding Libya; Egypt is backing General Khalifa Haftar and coordinates its defenses along the Libyan border with him. Furthermore, Egypt let Russia deploy elite commandos at that border to assist Haftar in a major new strategic move, making Moscow part of the volatile Libyan mix.
Enhanced relations between Egypt and Russia have led to problems with Saudi Arabia, which is actively supporting Islamic organizations fighting Assad and demands his removal. It also backs the Muslim Brotherhood in Libya and Yemen ‒ another serious bone of contention with Egypt. Worse, Egypt appears less committed to fighting Iran because of Russian-Iran cooperation in Syria.
These are not ideal conditions for the creation of a coalition of pragmatic states – Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the Emirates, perhaps with Jordan and Morocco – acting together to promote a peace process. Tensions between Riyadh and Cairo have led to Egypt declining to take a meaningful part in the Saudi-led Arab coalition against Houthi rebels in Yemen.
It is hard to see how they could agree on a common approach, even about the Palestinian issue, although all Arab states more or less support the same solution.
Making peace with Israel in the framework of a regional settlement is in the interest of Israel and the pragmatic Arab countries ‒ both sides needing to stand firm together against the twin threats of Iran and the Islamic State. This assumes that a peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians could – in theory – help in the fight against these two threats by weakening the determination of Iran’s proxy, Hezbollah, and Hamas to keep fighting the Jewish state. Hezbollah would also see its popularity waning in Lebanon because the country is no longer being “threatened” by Israel. It might even lessen Syria’s readiness to accept a permanent Iranian presence on its territory.
But what type of regional settlement are we talking about? Would it concern only the conflict with Israel, or would it lead to coordinating moves against Iran and radical Islamic organizations? Would Arab states be prepared to pressure the Palestinians into relinquishing some of their core demands? Netanyahu has repeatedly championed the cause of a regional settlement on the basis of the amelioration of relations between Israel and some of the pragmatic states.
On the other hand, a number of Israeli politicians, mostly from the Left, and several commentators are seeing an opportunity to engage in an Israeli-Palestinian dialogue under the auspices of major Arab states that would promote a solution ‒ a dialogue based on the Saudi-Arab peace initiative formulated in 2002 and endorsed by the Arab League in 2007. It entails preconditions that Israel cannot accept such as withdrawal from all territories taken in 1967 – that is not only Judea and Samaria, but also East Jerusalem and the Golan Heights, as well as the Shaba Farms (Mount Dov) on the Lebanese and Syrian borders. It also entails “the solution of the refugee problem” or so-called “right of return” as referred to in UN Resolution 194.
All Arab countries, Egypt included, are united in considering that these preconditions must be met to ensure the end of the conflict. Nevertheless, the aforementioned politicians and commentators believe these countries could and would convince the Palestinians to make sufficient concessions to enable a treaty ending the conflict once and for all. They believe that Egypt would take the lead in such a move, a belief based on its close – though discreet – security cooperation with Israel.
It is obviously in Egypt’s interest to be at the forefront of the push for peace negotiations.
After all, it fought Israel, not once, but five times since 1948, at great human and economic cost.
Following Anwar Sadat’s peace initiative of 1977, Egypt became the main mediator between Israel and the Palestinians but did not succeed in brokering a deal, even though the Camp David agreements also referred to the Palestinian problem.
Furthermore, because of the peace treaty, Egypt was shunned by most Arab countries and expelled from the Arab League, which moved its seat from Cairo to Tunis, where it remained for a decade before returning to Cairo. But Egypt never stopped its efforts at mediation, and during the Hosni Mubarak years there were numerous meetings between Yasser Arafat and Israeli representatives without achieving a breakthrough.
TODAY, SISI is sincerely committed to promoting a peace agreement aiming for the creation of a Palestinian state based on the 1967 borders with east Jerusalem as its capital. He has repeatedly praised the peace treaty between the two countries and of late has taken several steps to promote relations with Israel – sending an ambassador after a hiatus of three years; reopening the offices of the Israel Embassy in Cairo; and a high-profile visit to Jerusalem by Egypt’s foreign minister followed by a declaration by that minister, back in Egypt, that Israel’s actions against Palestinians are purely defensive and do not constitute terrorism. This is obviously Sisi’s position and not only the result of the security cooperation.
On the other hand, Egypt is a member of the Arab League and being part of the Arab world and of the Islamic “ouma” is embedded in its constitution. Can it then diverge from the Arab consensus regarding the core issues relative to the conflict, take the lead in the negotiations and bring about needed Palestinian concessions? Egypt has vehemently denied rumors, floated in some Israeli circles, suggesting it would be ready to give up a small area of Sinai to the Palestinians as part of a territory swap with Israel. Such a move would be totally in contradiction with clause No. 1 of its constitution, which stipulates that Egypt is one and indivisible. It is also contradictory to the core Egyptian belief that Egyptian land is sacred. Sisi’s failure to transfer to Saudi Arabia the islands of Tiran and Sapir is an illustrative example.
What about the other states, and especially Saudi Arabia? Could that country, keeper of the two holy sites of Islam and having the Koran for its constitution, endorse an agreement regarding Jerusalem (which, by the way, is not mentioned even once in the Koran) that would not leave the Temple Mount in Arab/Muslim hands? Undoubtedly, those states have an interest in cooperating with Israel and would like to see an agreement between Israel and the Palestinians, but cannot free themselves of their traditional positions. Even Egypt, which has the most to gain, is too mired in its own security problems and dissensions with Hamas and the Palestinian Authority to change these positions.
Yet, there is a glimmer of hope.
US President Donald Trump is still feeling his way in the Middle East quagmire.
His new administration might try to revive the old pragmatic anti-Iran front of Arab countries that had been jettisoned by former president Barack Obama when he concluded a separate deal on the Iranian nuclear program without informing his allies.
It will not be easy. Saudi Arabia and Egypt would have to be brought around, a task made more difficult by the growing influence exerted by Russia in the region. Yet, it would be the only way to bring a measure of peace and stability to the Middle East – as well as bringing about peace between Israel and the Palestinians.
Zvi Mazel, a fellow at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, is a former ambassador to Egypt, Romania and Sweden