On March 20, a meeting was held in Cairo between Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi and Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas. Qualified by the Palestinians as a warm and friendly encounter, the press release that followed was rather laconic.
Fatah Central Committee member Azzam Al-Ahmad who participated in the meeting reported to the Safa Palestinian News Agency that the two leaders had discussed the advancement of the peace process, the necessary preparations for the convening of the Arab League at the end of the month and their upcoming meetings with US President Donald Trump. Sisi will meet Trump at the beginning of April, and Abbas is supposed to make the trip to Washington in the middle of May.
However, the two did not limit themselves to exchanging views on the peace process and the new US president. A close associate of former Fatah senior member Mohammed Dahlan (Abbas’ bitter political rival) told Al-Monitor that Sisi finally agreed to meet with the Palestinian delegation after a year of disconnection only after it was made crystal clear to the Palestinians in preparatory talks that an Abbas-Dahlan conciliation was high on Sisi’s list. According to Dahlan’s associate (who spoke on the condition of anonymity), the Egyptians view the discord between the two Palestinian leaders as an “obtrusive obstacle.” Thus, relations between Cairo and the PA can only be tightened when this obstacle is overcome.
Tensions between Cairo and Ramallah worsened over recent months when Egypt attempted to reach a compromise that would allow for exiled Dahlan’s return to the West Bank. However, Abbas absolutely refused. Dahlan was expelled from Fatah and the West Bank in 2011. Abbas is afraid that Dahlan and Hamas plan to wrest control of the PA’s power centers. Then Abbas feels they will join forces with Dahlan’s supporters in the West Bank who are gaining strength in order to depose him.
Tensions came to a head between Egypt and the PA when Egypt did not permit Fatah senior member Jibril Rajoub (Dahlan’s enemy) to enter the country on Feb. 27. This is despite the fact that Rajoub, the Palestinian sports minister, was the guest of the Arab League’s secretary-general.
A pro-Dahlan Palestinian source in the Gaza Strip told Al-Monitor that Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry had updated Dahlan before Abbas had been invited to Cairo and after Abbas’ meeting with Sisi. That meeting was attended by a number of officials: Saeb Erekat, who is tasked with the negotiations with Israel; Majed Faraj, director of the PA’s General Intelligence Service and the PA’s No. 2 strongman after Abbas; Jamal Al-Shobaki, Palestinian ambassador to Cairo; and Fatah Central Committee member Ahmad.
According to Dahlan’s associate, the main consideration behind the Egyptian president’s efforts to reach a reconciliation is the understanding that Abbas and his people cannot advance a diplomatic process with Israel on their own. Abbas is in a precarious political position: He lacks the absolute support of the Palestinian public, and he is 81 years old. Thus, Sisi fears that the Palestinian president will not be able to cope successfully with the challenges involved in future negotiations, talks in which Egypt will also be involved. According to the source, the Egyptian president views his friend Dahlan as an important agent in advancing the diplomatic process.
The meeting between Sisi and Abbas took place only one full day after gunfire erupted between Dahlan supporters and the Palestinian security apparatus people in the Balata refugee camp near Nablus. In the exchange of fire, one Palestinian policeman was killed and another was wounded. These clashes in Nablus have taken place almost every night for the past few weeks. On March 20, Palestinian Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah convened an urgent security meeting in an attempt to find ways to relieve the tensions between the sides and forestall additional bloodshed. The main worry is that these clashes may spread to other refugee camps in the West Bank. Dahlan enjoys widespread support in these camps because he gives them generous financial aid.
High-level PA officials have been keeping a close, worried eye on Dahlan’s supporters for many months, as his supporters have been gaining strength throughout the West Bank. The Palestinian source told Al-Monitor that numerous Palestinian youths have been joining the Dahlan camp due to their great disappointment over the “blind policies” of Abbas. These supporters, he said, are angry with the president’s insistence on preventing a revered Palestinian leader (Dahlan) from returning “to his home and his people” to help them in their struggle for liberation from the occupation.
The Egyptian security system is well aware of the clashes and conflicts in the PA. They place the blame mainly on Abbas for creating security unrest in the territories by refusing to allow Dahlan’s return to the West Bank.
“The president of Egypt placed a loaded gun on the table,” said the Palestinian source. He added that Abbas, as well as the other Palestinian delegation members who participated in the Cairo meeting, realized that Sisi wants to take an active part in any diplomatic initiative that will be advanced between Israel and the Palestinians. And in order to increase the chances for success of such a diplomatic initiative, Sisi demands a Palestinian unity of forces on two levels: between the PA’s people and Dahlan’s people, and also some kind of steps toward a Fatah-Hamas reconciliation.
Recently, Hamas and Egypt have edged closer a bit. Cairo views the Palestinian Hamas movement as a tool that can help Egypt in its war against the Islamic State (IS) forces in Sinai. Dahlan had a significant role in the mediation between Egypt and the Hamas top brass. A reconciliation between all the parties would converge interests of all parties involved and benefit Hamas, Egypt and Dahlan. Hamas wants open communication channels with Cairo in the hopes of achieving easements in the closure on Gaza; Egypt wants to rout the jihadi elements in Sinai; and Dahlan, who pulls the strings, wants to form alliances with anti-Abbas forces.
What is left now is to wait and see whether the Palestinian president will join ranks with the Egyptian Abbas-Dahlan conciliation initiative. Clearly, Abbas views anyone gaining public power in the West Bank as a subversive element. Clearly, in his current situation, Abbas will find it hard to forfeit Egyptian support; as aforementioned, Egypt is expected to fill a significant role in any diplomatic process that Trump will initiate. Nevertheless, Abbas had already proved in the past that his rivalry with Dahlan encourages him to operate according to irrational considerations.