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The myth of Sisi’s Sinai proposal

A report that Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi proposed giving part of Sinai to the Palestinians stirred controversy among Egyptians, Palestinians and Israelis.
An Egyptian soldier stands guard on a watch tower on the border between Israel and Egypt, some 30 km (19 miles) north of Eilat, November 29, 2010. Last week Israel began work to construct a barrier to seal off part of the border with Egypt's Sinai desert from where many of the migrants enter the Jewish state. REUTERS/Ronen Zvulun (EGYPT - Tags: POLITICS MILITARY IMAGES OF THE DAY) - RTXV7JY

A few days ago, a claim surfaced that Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi offered to give part of the Sinai Peninsula to the Palestinians to expand the Gaza Strip and create a state. It was also claimed that the Palestinian president had rejected the Egyptian offer.

In fact, the claim is a farce — it never existed. Anyone with a basic understanding of the Egyptian psyche and current dynamics will reach this same conclusion. The proposal, however, reflects the new reality that has emerged after Israel’s Operation Protective Edge in Gaza that ended with an open-ended cease-fire deal. This inconclusive end of the war highlights a new reality in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that is characterized by no peace, no victory and no guarantees for any long-term period of calm. Within this atmosphere of uncertainty, everyone is bound to feel stuck, and rumors can be considered legible.

Reports first surfaced on Sept. 3, in a piece by Elhanan Miller, and then on Sept. 8, on Israeli Army Radio. The news unsurprisingly caused a stir and was strongly denied by both Egypt and the Palestinian Authority (PA). Despite the absurdity of the claim, some (mostly pro-Israel) believed it or at least saw it as a creative, out-of-the-box proposition. Commentary Magazine’s Jonathan Tobin described it as a “healthy sign.” Other Israel supporters on social media criticized Egypt for denying the report. Moreover, a few days later, Israel Harel wrote a piece in Haaretz discussing the topic as if the offer were indeed a fact, ignoring the formal Egyptian denial. The enthusiastic response by some of Israel’s supporters indicates a worrying dystopian thinking that still considers Sinai a “disputed land.”

In contrast, Egyptians laughed at any idea of such a proposal. Not because they can read the mind of their president, but because they fully understand how there are things that even their strong leader, Sisi, cannot fiddle around with or change.

For a start, the Palestinian refugee crisis was never created by Egypt, nor did it have any impact on the country to persuade the Egyptians to provide a solution. Although Egypt hosts some Palestinian refugees, the country has no Palestinian refugee camps within its territories, unlike other Arab states. Moreover, Egyptian Law 104 of 1985 prevents foreign persons from owning any land (including desert lands) in Egypt.

Second, Sisi, an ex-military man who drums the patriotic chord daily, will definitely not ignore the thousands of Egyptian soldiers who lost their lives in the 1973 war, or the daring quest for peace that followed and the tricky negotiations, including an international tribunal for the disputed area of Taba, just to regain the last inch of Sinai. Anwar Sadat lost his life for Sinai, and Sisi will never sacrifice his life to undo Sadat’s work.

Third, giving up part of Egyptian land contradicts the essence of the 2014 constitution. The preamble of the constitution highlights the 1973 war and special position of Sadat in Egypt’s history. Rumors that former President Mohammed Morsi was willing to give part of Sinai to Hamas have prompted stronger language in the constitution that followed his ousting.

Finally, the proposal risks compromising Egypt’s national security. Egypt is relentlessly trying to keep Gaza at bay. Tunnels are being destroyed and a buffer zone is planned. Bringing more potentially hostile elements closer to Egypt would be a dangerous and reckless move.

With all of this in mind, we are left to ask: Who floated that offer? Why now? And why did it take so long for Egypt and the PA to deny it?

It is simply possible that this farce of a proposal was just a wishful thinking that found an eager audience. It is also plausible that Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas was talking about the old rumors of Morsi’s alleged willingness to give part of Sinai to the Palestinians, and how he rejected it, in a lame effort to play the Palestinian patriot. Abbas could be easily trying to explain the past, but the words were perceived as if he is talking about the present, hence the Sisi-Morsi mix-up.

Another possibility is that someone within the Israeli army establishment is unhappy with Egypt’s broken cease-fire deal and the perceived cozy relationship between Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Sisi.

Broadcasting the claim from the Israeli army radio without a link to a video or statement to prove it suggests that it is only a tentative effort to recycle old ideas, such as the 2004 Giora Eiland plan to expand Gaza to test both Egypt and Israel’s current leaderships’ stance. The response of the Egyptian leadership supports such an assumption. Egypt did not rush to deny it to avoid perceptions of haste or guilt. Sisi later denied the report, but did so in a calm measured way. This was clearly aimed to maintain the delicate balance in his relationship with both Netanyahu and Abbas, and was done with the knowledge that the Egyptian public already views the matter as a superficial rumor.

The chronic Arab-Israeli conflict has made words like “bizarre” and “creative” synonymous in the minds of desperate stakeholders who stubbornly refuse to acknowledge that they cannot wipe out their foes. All sides need to realize that conflict will not be solved until there is an understanding that there is nothing “creative” or miraculous to bail anyone out. The road to peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians does not run through Sinai.

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