Welcome to Kalamna, the student blog of the Hagop Kevorkian Center for Near Eastern Studies at NYU.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Egypt's Negotiating Handicap

The International Institute of Strategic Studies just released a 'strategic comment' on the Israeli-Palestinian peace situation. The title kind of says it all: "Receding Prospects for Middle Eastern Peace." It certainly makes for sober reading. The authors systematically enumerate the array of problems that are currently conspiring to make the alleged 'Peace Process' more like a 'Peace Debacle.' Intransigence on both the Palestinian and Israeli sides of the table are the primary drivers of the stalemate, though virtually all of the participating actors have contributed to the mess as well.

One of these actors is Egypt. The Egyptian regime currently serves as a sponsor and intermediary in the talks between Fatah and Hamas to create a unity Palestinian government. Given how much these two parties hate each other, it is not terribly surprising that Egypt has seen little success. As the article explains, Fatah has signed an Egyptian-sponsored reconciliation agreement that would establish elections for a new Palestinian government in 2010. But with no real incentive, Hamas has yet to sign on.

Whereas in the past Egypt has sought to cajole Hamas into taking more conciliatory positions, its strategy at this stage seems to be good, old-fashioned arm-twisting. It has started construction of an underground wall, which will block Hamas's system of tunnels that gives it access to outside goods. It has also started rallying other Arab states to apply pressure on Hamas to sign the agreement and claims to be building support for an Arab peacekeeping force that would maintain security in the Gaza strip. Much of this seems to be a tactic aimed at forcing Hamas to back down and sign the accord.

Egypt's tactic may work. But given how resilient Hamas has proven itself in the face of outside pressure, I agree with the IISS and suspect the group may hold out.

In fact, there are may be a more fundamental problem stemming directly from Egypt's role in the process. I have not seen this discussed much (which means there may be nothing to it!) but I tend to believe that one of the reasons Egypt has so much difficulty extracting concessions from Hamas on Fatah's behalf is because of a basic lack of trust. Hamas doesn't trust the Egyptian regime -- probably with good reason. Egypt is an unequivocal supporter of Abbas and the Fatah party. It also has a deeply hostile position toward political Islam, primarily due to its fraught relationship with its own internal Islamist movement. In fact it struck me as somewhat ironic that this press on stalled Fatah-Hamas talks came simultaneous with news of Egypt's most recent wave of crackdowns on moderate Muslim Brotherhood leaders. How does Egypt expect to build trust with Hamas if it is groundlessly imprisoning and repressing members of Hamas's sister organization? I honestly don't know how deep Hamas's current connection with the MB is (beyond there ideological and historical links), but even if these ties are weak, it does not send a very constructive message.

To be honest, I believe that Egypt is not the best party to broker these negotiations. The best intermediaries are at least ostensibly neutral in the dispute and are trusted by both sides. Egypt is neither of these. I think the prospects for a mutually agreeable reconciliation agreement would be much higher if a different Arab or Middle Eastern government were to step in instead. Off the top of my head, I can think of Saudi Arabia, Turkey, or Qatar as obvious possibilities. Saudi is a major regional player, which has better Islamist credentials than Egypt and whose role in the Peace Process has come to be crucial over the years. The latter two have both proven to be adept intermediaries (Turkey with Syria and Israel, and Qatar between factions in Lebanon) and also have relatively good relations with both Hamas and Fatah.

To be honest, no matter who is the mediator, the likelihood of these two parties coming together to form a unity government is still very slim. But these things only get solved through baby steps. Jettisoning Egypt as chief negotiator between the two parties might be a good start.

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