GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip — After a monthslong chill in relations, Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas seems ready to try to mend ties with Egypt.
Tensions arose after Abbas refused to cooperate in September with an initiative led by the Arab Quartet (Saudi Arabia, Egypt, United Arab Emirates and Jordan) to heal Fatah's internal split over enmity between Fatah Chairman Abbas and dismissed Fatah leader Mohammed Dahlan. The quartet believes mending that rift would then allow for a reconciliation between Fatah and rival party Hamas.
The strain between Egypt and Abbas worsened Dec. 22 when Egypt withdrew its UN Security Council draft resolution condemning Israeli settlement construction. On Dec. 23, the same draft was submitted to the Security Council by New Zealand, Malaysia, Venezuela and Senegal, and was approved 14-0, with the United States abstaining.
But Abbas sent PLO Executive Committee Secretary Saeb Erekat on a surprise visit to Cairo, where he met Dec. 31 with Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry.
A source at the Egyptian Foreign Ministry in Cairo told Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity, “Erekat’s visit confirmed that relations between the PA and Egypt are strong. It also aimed to discuss the mechanisms of implementation of the [Security Council's] recent anti-settlement resolution.”
The source indicated that the two sides also discussed what next steps can be carried out by the Arab Quartet at the international level to make progress on the Palestinian cause, specifically seeking again to help Palestine achieve full member-state status in the United Nations.
Azzam al-Ahmad, a Fatah Central Committee member, told Al-Monitor, “Erekat’s visit to Cairo denies any crisis or tensions plaguing the relationship between Egypt and the PA. Egypt has been and will always be an Arab state that embraces the Palestinian cause.”
He confirmed that Erekat discussed with Egyptian officials how to implement UN Security Council Resolution 2334 condemning Israeli settlements and how to coordinate efforts to prepare for the Paris Peace Conference slated for Jan. 15.
He also denied that there is any Arab pressure, specifically from Egypt, on Abbas to reconcile with Dahlan. He noted that Cairo cannot link the fate of the Palestinian cause to one specific person. Other Fatah leaders and cadres have also been dismissed, and Fatah has put the Dahlan issue behind it, he said.
Palestinian actions to repair the relationship with the Arab Quartet, especially Egypt, began when Abbas visited Saudi Arabia on Dec. 21 after Fatah’s General Conference, held Nov. 29 to Dec. 4 in Ramallah. The conference was an opportunity for Abbas to further entrench his influence and promote his standing within Fatah at the expense of Dahlan’s movement, which Abbas marginalized.
On Jan. 1, just one day after Erekat’s visit, Dahlan also headed to Egypt, which had allowed Dahlan’s movement to hold and organize activities on its territory in October, perhaps to spite Abbas for his rejection in September of the Arab Quartet’s reconciliation initiative. Sources close to Dahlan told Egyptian daily Al-Youm Al-Sabeh on Jan. 1 that he would meet with several Egyptian officials to discuss Palestinian developments, particularly the efforts to achieve internal Palestinian reconciliation and follow the road map set by the Arab Quartet to help the Palestinian cause.
Wissam Afifa, a political analyst and editor-in-chief of Hamas’ al-Resalah, a biweekly newspaper in Gaza close to Hamas, told Al-Monitor, “After fortifying his position within the Fatah movement after the 7th General Conference, Abbas now seeks to further fortify his standing [with] the Arab countries, particularly the Arab Quartet, as Palestinian president and leader of Fatah.”
He said, however, “It is unlikely at this particular moment that relations between Egypt and the PA will go back to normal, in light of Egypt’s [relationship with] Dahlan and his somewhat regular visits to Cairo.”
Political analyst Mohsen Abu Ramadan pointed out that common interests between the PA and Egypt push them to mend their ties, even if their relationship will never be as close as before.
“President Abbas tried to replace Egyptian sponsorship of the Fatah-Hamas internal reconciliation with the Qatari-Turkish sponsorship and tried to disassociate himself from the Arab Quartet, but soon reverted back to this quartet since he became aware of the leverage that the participating Arab countries confer to his diplomatic moves before international forums," he told Al-Monitor.
The PA, which recognizes Egypt's decades-long importance as a main advocate of the Palestinian cause, cannot afford to turn its back on the country, especially given many Arab countries' preoccupation with their own disputes internally or with neighboring countries, such as Saudi Arabia and its war in Yemen. The PA is in dire need of an Arab supporter to help it move on the international level to win rights for Palestinians.