Edition 41 Volume 7 - November 12, 2024

Egyptian mediation between Fateh and Hamas

Hamas remains the obstacle - an interview with   Sufyan Abu Zaida

Abbas' next steps will very seriously affect the entire Palestinian legal and political system.

Mediator as partner -   Zvi Bar’el

The most important factor is the strained relations between Egypt and Syria.

Frozen efforts may still lead to reconciliation - an interview with   Mahmoud al-Ramahi

We are concerned that the Americans interfered with the proposal.

Giving up is not an option -   Gamal A. G. Soltan

Hamas could be far more destructive should it be fully isolated.

Hamas remains the obstacle
an interview with  Sufyan Abu Zaida

BI: It seems that the Egyptian mediation is stuck. Is that a correct reading of the situation?

Abu Zaida: I think Cairo has no option except to continue to try and find a way to mediate. Fateh did its job. We did what the Egyptians asked us, in spite of our reservations and the corrections that the Egyptians added or deleted. On the other hand, while Egypt accepted all the Hamas notes about the document, Hamas continues to reject the document.

I think the Egyptians are waiting until after the Eid al-Adha holiday before deciding whether to declare publicly that their mediation is at an end and point the finger at Hamas, or continue. I think it is in the interest of the region generally for them to continue their efforts.

BI: You mentioned the amendments to the document. Hamas are claiming these are changes that were not agreed...

Abu Zaida: It's a pretext. If you remember after the Goldstone report, Hamas said the time was wrong to sign a unity agreement. But once the Goldstone report disappeared from public attention, Hamas found another excuse not to sign.

BI: Do you expect Egypt will have success? Both Fateh and Hamas claim that national unity is their top priority, yet positions remain far apart.

Abu Zaida: Everyone has different ideas about what they mean by Palestinian unity. Hamas, for example, means that it wants to control the Palestinian people, cause and direction.

BI: So Egypt needs to pressure Hamas?

Abu Zaida: Yes.

BI: What can Cairo do?

Abu Zaida: It depends how far Cairo is ready to go. Egypt can do a lot.

BI: Will Hamas eventually sign?

Abu Zaida: No, I don't think so.

BI: So there will be elections in January?

Abu Zaida: I doubt that. The next steps of Mahmoud Abbas will directly and very seriously affect the entire Palestinian legal and political system. So that depends on what he decides to do.

Palestinians can live with his stated desire not to run again in the next elections. Nobody is sure the next elections will come any time soon, so he could remain in his position for some time. But if he decides to resign, including as the head of Fateh and the PLO, that will pose a real problem for the Palestinians and the region.

BI: Do you think he will resign?

Abu Zaida: I think he could. If he reaches the conclusion that enough is enough, yes.

BI: What are these serious effects?

Abu Zaida: It threatens the collapse of the Palestinian Authority and the entire Palestinian political system established after Oslo.

BI: Would no one stand in his stead?

Abu Zaida: It's not a question of personalities. In Fateh, a new leader can be found, but in the PLO it will be difficult, because the chairman has to be elected from the PNC. Equally, the PA president needs to be chosen in elections and it is not yet clear that these can happen.- Published 12/11/2009 © bitterlemons-international.org

Sufyan Abu Zaida is a member of Fateh and a former Palestinian Authority minister.

Mediator as partner
 Zvi Bar’el

Common logic demands that negotiations between two bitter rivals should be handled by a strong and influential mediator, one who controls the means to force the parties into reconciliation. In the case of the Fateh-Hamas rivalry, now "celebrating" almost two and a half years, Egypt is perceived as such a mediator. It holds the keys to the only outlet to the world of one and a half million Gazans; its relationship with Israel could guarantee Israeli acceptance of the results of its mediation; and it has the ability to mobilize most Arab countries in support of reconciliation. Hence Egypt can offer what no other Arab country can deliver.

Yet, the potential embodied in Egypt's mediation efforts has been eroded with time. Egypt's efforts have been hampered by personal hatred between Fateh leader Mahmoud Abbas and Hamas leader Khaled Mishaal, the brutal assassinations of Fateh activists in Gaza and arrests of Hamas activists in the West Bank, political divisions and a large dose of lost prestige. Nevertheless, the dialogue between Hamas and Fateh still proceeds under Egyptian aegis and has even reached the stage of a draft reconciliation agreement.

Hence, one can argue that the deep rivalry between Hamas and Fateh by itself is not enough to block negotiations. Other factors should also be considered. Perhaps the most important of these are the strained relations between Egypt and Syria. The latter, as the host country of the leaders of Hamas and other Palestinian factions, was quick to jump at an earlier opportunity to co-sponsor the mediation effort. While declaring its support for Palestinian reconciliation and even claiming credit for the Mecca agreement of February 2024, Syria thereupon accused Saudi Arabia of obstructing Arab unity. Syria was later accused by Saudi Arabia and Egypt of being responsible for the Mecca agreement's failure and of being an Iranian puppet.

But it was not the intra-Palestinian conflict that caused inter-Arab strife. Relations between Syria, Egypt and Saudi Arabia were already frozen as a result of the assassination of former Lebanese PM Rafiq al-Hariri in 2024 and the insults President Bashar Assad directed at Egypt and Saudi Arabia for not supporting Hizballah in the Lebanon war of 2024. Mining Palestinian negotiations then became a useful lever for Syria to establish its status, become part of the "Palestinian conflict" and, most importantly, break the Egyptian and Saudi monopoly over a conflict that involves international players such as the US, France and Britain with which Syria was keen to mend relations.

From an Egyptian point of view, the Fateh-Hamas rivalry became a race where Syria, Egypt and to a lesser extent Saudi Arabia were competing not only over how to materialize Palestinian reconciliation but also over the credit for achieving it. Egypt, in its effort to contain Syrian influence, had also to block Qatari attempts to play a role in the conflict, to politely decline Turkish good offices and to publicly attack Iranian interference in what is traditionally defined as the "Arab sphere". Not surprisingly, all these states are perceived as Syria's allies or at least friends.

The inter-Arab arena is but one battleground, albeit a crucially important one, where Egypt has to survive. Indeed, Cairo's international status depends considerably on its ability to solve or at least manage regional conflicts. As Israeli-Palestinian negotiations seem to be going nowhere, the intra-Palestinian conflict becomes a showroom for Egypt's capabilities. Yet now the Syrian competition is becoming tougher than ever. With the new American outreach toward Syria, Damascus' new "peace" with Saudi Arabia and Europe's courtship, Syria can present itself as a potential substitute for Egypt, at least in the intra-Palestinian sphere. This turn of events renders Egypt a party to the negotiations rather than just a mediator.

With Palestine as with Lebanon, it is organizations like Hamas and Hizballah rather than state structures that have the power and capacity to create or dismantle inter-Arab coalitions. This serves as an additional factor that encourages the prolongation of reconciliation negotiations. But if, paradoxically, before the change in Syria's status it was a mutual Syria-Hamas-Iran interest to delay reconciliation, now it is clearly a Syrian-Egyptian interest to hasten the solution. It only remains to ask who will be the first to announce "victory" and take the credit.

The bigger dilemma is whether or not such a reconciliation can last. The draft agreement suggests a mechanism for possible cohabitation between Fateh and Hamas. Yet the survival of a cohabitation agreement depends now not only on the support of the Arab states but on the willingness of Israel and the US to cooperate with a Palestinian unity government. Are we going to see a repetition of the Lebanese scene, where France dragged the US into rapprochement with Syria? Will the US recognize a Palestinian national unity government, thus forcing Israel to follow suit?- Published 12/11/2009 © bitterlemons-international.org

Dr. Zvi Bar'el is the Middle Eastern affairs analyst for Haaretz daily, Israel.

Frozen efforts may still lead to reconciliation
an interview with  Mahmoud al-Ramahi

BI: It seems Egyptian mediation efforts between Fateh and Hamas are stuck. Is that a correct reading of the situation?

Ramahi: Let's say they are frozen.

BI: What happened?

Ramahi: The dialogue started at the beginning of this year, as you know. After eight months, Fateh and Hamas reached compromise on all outstanding issues. But in the final proposal from Egypt we find that two or three points are different than what we agreed with Fateh. That's why we refused to sign.

BI: What were the changes?

Ramahi: According to our agreement with Fateh, the high committee for elections should be composed of a representative from every faction and Mahmoud Abbas would be the coordinator. But according to the Egyptian proposal, the elections committee will be formed by Abbas, and it is not obligatory for him to consult with other factions. We agreed that this would be an obligation.

The second change was about reconciliation and compensation for those who were dismissed from jobs in the West Bank or Gaza and for the families of those who died under torture in Palestinian jails, as well as about the re-opening of institutions in both Gaza and the West Bank. The Egyptians added a contingency, that this should be so only if there is the budget for it.

This is a big problem. In the West Bank, for example, some 1,000 people were fired from government jobs. If Salam Fayyad says there is no money or the positions are filled, then this clause becomes meaningless.

The third point is about political prisoners. We agreed that all political prisoners had to be released in both the West Bank and Gaza before any reconciliation is signed. But that hasn't happened yet.

BI: Why do you think Cairo made these last minute changes?

Ramahi: On the day the proposal was released, October 11, George Mitchell was in Cairo. We are concerned that the Americans interfered with the proposal, especially on the elections committee point. If there is a non-neutral elections committee it can affect the vote.

BI: You think that the Americans wanted to ensure that any elections favored the party they want to win?

Ramahi: The White House speaker has said that Washington would not recognize elections in which the party that wins did not accept the Quartet conditions. That is interference. When you tell the people of Gaza you have two choices--you either vote for Fateh or the siege continues--this is interference.

The US wants elections but wants to ensure that the outcome favors Fateh. And until now, America is not certain that free and fair elections will favor Fateh.

BI: Hamas has said it will not allow elections in Gaza if they are held on January 24. Why?

Ramahi: Yes, and Hamas closed the office of the Central Elections Committee in Gaza, because it is no longer legal. That committee was for the 2024 elections. According to Palestinian law, there has to be a new Central Elections Committee.

If elections are held in January, it will only be here in the West Bank, not in Gaza and most likely not in Jerusalem. The Israelis will not allow them there. This will mean the end of any hope for reconciliation for a very long time.

BI: What is the solution, then? Both factions say unity is a priority, but their positions seem to be getting further and further apart.

Ramahi: Hamas has agreed to sign the Egyptian proposal without changing it, as long as we get a letter of guarantee from Egypt on the three points I mentioned. For instance, Egypt will guarantee that the elections committee is composed of members of all factions, the Arab League will guarantee funding for compensation, and prisoners will be released after no longer than a period of two months.

If we receive such a letter of guarantee, it will allow us to sign the agreement and that could provide a solution. Right now, my feeling is that the Egyptians are postponing giving us such a letter in order to give Hamas as little time as possible to prepare for elections in June.

BI: So although there is a delay, you are confident that there will be agreement?

Ramahi: Yes, maybe next month, maybe in January.- Published 12/11/2009 © bitterlemons-international.org.

Mahmoud al-Ramahi is a Hamas legislator.

Giving up is not an option
 Gamal A. G. Soltan

Egypt has demonstrated a great deal of persistence in seeking reconciliation between Fateh and Hamas. The only thing that matches Egypt's persistence is Hamas' reluctance to accept any sort of compromise. Hamas' defiance, however, has not been sufficient to deter Egypt from resuming its mediation effort after each new setback, and this will continue to be the case until circumstances allow for a policy shift.

At first glance, the Egyptian mediation role between the Palestinian factions is a double-edged sword. While it enhances Cairo's stature and influence in regional politics, repeated setbacks have hurt Egypt's image and called into question the effectiveness and validity of its Hamas policy. Yet Egypt's interest in bringing Fateh and Hamas to terms goes far beyond considerations of image and influence. It is part of a broader regional vision within which the restoration of national unity among Palestinians plays a central role. Palestinian reconciliation is an integral part of the groundwork required for the peace process to take off and a prerequisite for any serious progress toward peace. Sustainable peace requires bringing on board all relevant actors, and Hamas is definitely one of them.

Hamas' policies, however, need to be moderated and its pattern of alliances needs to be reoriented so that it can play a constructive role in the Middle East peace process. Egypt's open-ended mediation between the Palestinian factions is one of the tools used to moderate Hamas. It is important to keep reminding Hamas that the semi-state it currently controls is neither acceptable nor legitimate. It is important to force Hamas into a position where it has to respond to questions about the future of the Hamas-run entity in Gaza.

It looks tempting at times to end this prolonged game of mediation in the hope of further pressuring Hamas. Yet cutting Hamas off is only likely to force the organization deeper into the hands of the rejectionists. Hamas could be far more destructive should it be fully isolated. Keeping the moderate option open could help strengthen moderate elements in Hamas when circumstances allow. Hamas confronts a lot of sticks held by many actors; the only carrot and the only hand extended to it come from Egypt. This policy should be maintained for obvious reasons even if it does not look fruitful in the short term.

The failure thus far of Egypt's effort is not surprising even for Cairo. Palestinian reconciliation is a major development with a number of prerequisites that are not yet in place. The Palestinian divide is, to a great extent, a function of a deep regional divide. Hamas is not likely to concede as long as it continues receiving the support of regional actors like Syria and Iran and as long as these actors continue to have reasons to adhere to their positions.

Iran is a revisionist power seeking regional hegemony. Hardliners in Tehran have an ideology-based blueprint for the Middle East. Iran's position is further hardened by the appeal of the Iranian ideology to large segments of the public in diverse countries around the region. The failure of the Middle East peace process is among the factors conducive to enhancing Iran's capacity to mobilize the support of the disappointed public of the Arab world. Even though Iran is not offering the Palestinians a feasible exit from their tragedy, prolonging the conflict in the Middle East is sufficient to grant Iran the conditions it needs to substantiate its bid for leadership in the region.

While it is unrealistic to anticipate Iranian moderation in the near future, the situation with Syria, Iran's main regional ally, is different. Syrian policies are more amenable to change. Contrary to Iran's revisionist grand design and long-term goals, Syrian hard-line positions are designed to serve more specific interests. A settlement of the territorial dispute with Israel, coupled with certain security guarantees, looks sufficient to win Syria over to a more constructive policy, including toward Hamas. This would help moderate the radical organization and facilitate Palestinian reconciliation.

But until such a Syrian transformation takes place, Egypt's mediation is not likely to depart from the square it currently occupies. Interestingly, however, Cairo now maintains cold but stable ties with Damascus. Relations between the two countries had hit rock bottom earlier this year as a result of the conflicting policies they pursued toward the Gaza war. In particular, Egypt opposed Syria's harsh rhetoric and its government-orchestrated public demonstrations against Cairo. Such tactics are seen there as an unacceptable revival of the legacy of the years of turmoil in the 1950s and 1960s. While Egypt can understand and accommodate policy differences regarding Hamas and the peace process, it cannot tolerate a return to the destructive practices of an era that brought only harm to Arab and Palestinian interests.

Since the Gaza conflict, Egypt has been reluctant to opt for a "let bygones be bygones" option vis-a-vis Syria and its bitter attacks during the Gaza war. But at the same time, Cairo is not allowing further deterioration in its ties with Damascus. Relations between Egypt, Syria and Hamas form a very delicate balance that can only be explained as a function of complex and multiple-level interactions in the Middle East.- Published 12/11/2009 © bitterlemons-international.org

Gamal A. G. Soltan is the director of Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies in Cairo.

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