Egypt revives Palestinian mediator role

President Mahmoud Abbas of the Palestinian Authority met with Egyptian president Abdel Fattah El Sisi to discuss reviving the dormant peace process and affirming the primacy of a two state solution.

At his inauguration ceremony, Mr El Sisi, left, received Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas. Mena news agency/AP Photo
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Cairo has moved to regain its traditional leadership role in the region with a mediation push between the Palestinians, split between rival leaderships in Gaza and the West Bank, and Israel.

On Sunday president Mahmoud Abbas of the Palestinian Authority met with Egyptian president Abdel Fattah El Sisi to discuss reviving the dormant peace process and affirming the primacy of a two state solution.

This was preceded in recent months with other potentially more momentous negotiations with Hamas and the Fatah power broker Mohamed Dahlan, who has emerged as an important player in the ever-complicated conflict.

Since November last year Egypt has eased its restrictions on the densely populated Gaza Strip, which has been under blockade by air, sea and land from Israel and Egypt since 2007 when Hamas, the Islamist party affiliated with the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, won popular elections.

Last month, the Palestinian Authority, based in the West Bank, pushed on with its sanctions of Hamas requested from Israel by cutting electricity to the beleaguered territory. The move designed to punish Hamas’s belligerent stalling in forming a unity government left two million Gazans with around four hours of power a day.

The thawing of relations between Egypt, which has sought to quell regional Islamist movements under the umbrella of the Muslim Brotherhood, and Hamas has caused consternation for Mr Abbas, the Fatah chief.

Yet, Gehad Al Hazarin, a Fatah leader and spokesman for the movement in Cairo, who was involved in the meeting between Mr Abbas and Mr El Sisi on Sunday, said the octogenarian leader is unfazed.

"Abu Mazen wants an end to the divisions among Palestinian parties and to ultimately end the blockade of Gaza" he told The National.

He downplayed the rising star of security czar Mohamed Dahlan.

“This is a storm in a teacup” he said. “Egypt has reiterated that it is embracing of all sides and has thus negotiated accordingly with the legitimate representative of the Palestinian people embodied in the Palestinian Authority.”

Others such as Mouin Rabbani, a political analyst with the Washington based Institute of Palestine Studies, are skeptical of Mr Abbas’s footing.

“All relevant developments are pointing in the opposite direction”, he said referring to the formation of a unity government anytime soon. Hamas and Fatah had announced creating a unified front to stem the flow of Israeli settlements in January this year after a round of talks in Moscow.

“Israel is, to put it mildly, exceptionally pleased with Mr El Sisi and sees in him the best Egyptian development for its policies since Anwar Sadat,” Mr Rabbani said.

“It is also unlikely to be particularly perturbed by an agreement that keeps the blockade in place and in which the only relief is managed by one of its closest Arab allies and partner in strangling the Gaza Strip”, Mr Rabbani added.

Days ahead of Mr Abbas’s meeting with Donald Trump in May, Hamas released a new policy document in Doha outlining a softening of its stance towards Israel and accepting the 1967 borders of an independent Palestinian state.

The prominence of the Abu Dhabi based Mohammed Dahlan’s positioning in background talks with Cairo’s security and political elites as well as with Hamas has offered another avenue for Fatah-Hamas reconciliation especially if the Islamist movement is true to its word on seeking to turn a new chapter in its governance.

“Polls are saying that Palestinians have grown tired of Mr Abbas’s laggard and old politics that ultimately serve an American and Israeli agenda since Oslo," said Ahmed Youssef, a former advisor to prime minister Ismail Haniyeh and prominent leader with Hamas. Dahlan represents a reformist political ideology within Fatah that we can work with.”

He was even more upbeat about the turn in negotiations with the Egyptian government in recent months with Hamas’s new leader Yahya Sinwar, from the more militant wing of the Islamist movement, meeting with Egyptian intelligence chiefs last month.

"The talks with the Egyptians were urgent and shouldn't have deteriorated this much. The security portfolio with the rise of terrorism in Sinai has really brought the two sides together. We need an honest broker when it comes to negotiating with Israel" he told The National from Gaza.

Hamas has catered to Egypt’s security requests creating a buffer zone on its border replete with cameras and watch towers to track the movement of extremist militants between Egypt and Gaza.

The thaw in political ties between Cairo and Gaza gives Mr Dahlan an upperhand in legitimising his leadership potential while raising anxieties among Fatah’s old guard.

“Hamas are the first people who betrayed our nation. They are thriving on these divisions to serve the Israelis” Mr Al Hazarin said.

For now, the Israelis are keeping a watchful eye on Cairo’s manoeuvrings on deep-seated divisions in the Palestinian camp, which will remain embedded in the near future.

“These recent developments are likely to lead to a deepening of the separation and fragmentation between the West Bank and Gaza Strip, which remains a key Israeli policy objective vis-a-vis the Palestinians” Mr Rabbani said.