Egypt strikes delicate balance with lukewarm support for Bahrain conference

Cairo is trying to keep key ally the US happy while continuing to support Palestinians

In this Tuesday, June 25, 2019, photo released by Bahrain News Agency, White House senior adviser Jared Kushner talks to the audience during the opening session of the "Peace to Prosperity" workshop in Manama, Bahrain. Amid heavy skepticism and deep doubts about prospects for success, the Trump administration on Tuesday was convening an international conference to promote its ambitious but heavily criticized $50 billion economic support plan for the Palestinians. (Bahrain News Agency via AP)
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Egypt's low-level representation at a two-day Bahrain economic conference for the Palestinians speaks to Cairo's delicate balancing act as a close Washington ally and an advocate of Palestinian rights.

The conference opened on Tuesday in capital Manama as Palestinians, who boycotted the meeting, expressed their outright rejection of the Peace to Prosperity plan.

Egypt, which receives about $1.5 billion (Dh5.5bn) annually in US military and economic aid, has sent a deputy finance minister to the Bahrain workshop.

His mission, Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry said, was to assess the situation.

Put together by President Donald Trump's senior adviser and son-in-law Jared Kushner, the plan was praised on Wednesday by international financial chiefs and global investors as ambitious.

But they warned it would be of little use without realistic peace prospects.

Egypt's credentials as a potentially key player in any attempt to settle the Arab-Israeli conflict are beyond doubt, although Cairo's regional influence has somewhat diminished in recent years due to the political and economic turmoil that followed a popular uprising in 2011.

In 1979, for example, Egypt became the first Arab nation to sign a peace treaty with Israel.

Its Sinai Peninsula borders the Gaza Strip and Israel, with which it fought four, full-fledged wars between 1948 and 1973. Paradoxically, most of Egypt's 100 million people to this day view Israel as their country's arch-enemy and consider its treatment of the Palestinians tantamount to crimes against humanity.

For decades, Egypt, with the blessing of the US, has unsuccessfully sought to broker a peace deal between Israel and the Palestinians.

In recent years, it has tried mediating, again unsuccessfully, between the West Bank-based Palestinian Authority and its rival in Gaza, the militant Hamas group that rules the coastal enclave.

Egypt's President, Abdel Fattah El Sisi, has had a meeting of minds with President Donald Trump since the two first met in 2016 after the US leader won the nomination of the Republican Party.

That inspired Cairo to voice its support in principle for Mr Trump's plan to negotiate an enduring settlement to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

But Cairo later had to tread a fine line as the Trump administration made moves that drew angry responses across the Arab world, like recognising a unified Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, moving the US embassy there, and suspending funds to the UN agency that looks after Palestinian refugees, UNRWA. That, however, did not stop Mr Kushner from visiting Cairo to confer with Mr El Sisi and his top aides, although little detail of these talks have been divulged.

Egypt, meanwhile, has had to repeatedly dismiss reports that, under Mr Trump's political plan, it will have to surrender parts of Sinai to create a Palestinian state that includes the Gaza Strip.

"The people of Sinai will never surrender anything," Mr El Sisi said this month.

Mr Shoukry was more categorical on this point.

"There will be no surrendering of a single grain of sand from Sinai, where Egyptians died defending it or fighting to win it back," he said this week.

Mr El Sisi also had to restate the country's opposition to any political settlement that is not to the satisfaction of the Palestinians.

"Egypt will never accept anything that the Palestinians are unhappy with," he said. "We in Egypt don't speak for the Palestinians and cannot be happy with anything that they don't accept."

Washington's economic support plan for the Palestinians includes Egypt,  Jordan and Lebanon, two countries bordering Israel and home to large numbers of Palestinian refugees.

Along with the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, they stand to benefit from private sector investments that envision a million new jobs, reducing Palestinian unemployment rates to single digits, doubling the Palestinian gross domestic product and reducing their poverty rate by half.

This will be done through projects in health care, education power, water, tourism, transport and agriculture.

But the plan acknowledges that its success hinges on the conclusion of a Palestinian-Israeli peace deal.