Egypt Pulse

Can Egypt afford to defy Trump in support of Gaza?

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Article Summary
Egypt is walking a tightrope as it tries to balance its support for Palestinians with its common interests with Washington and its security and economic ties to Israel.

CAIRO — As Egypt vigorously pursues diplomatic efforts to reach a lasting truce on the Gaza-Israel border, Cairo's delegate to the Arab League, Yasser al-Atwi, confirmed recently that his country will continue to support the Palestinian people and work to stabilize the cease-fire in the Gaza Strip.

Atwi spoke at a Nov. 15 meeting of the Arab League council in Cairo, where members discussed recent Israeli-Hamas clashes in Gaza.

More than 200 Palestinians have been killed since the weekly Great March of Return protests began in March on the Gaza Strip border with Israel. In mid-November, the fighting reached its worst level in four years. 

Palestinian factions in the Gaza Strip accepted an Egyptian-brokered cease-fire with Israel on Nov. 13, when Egypt's Foreign Ministry warned of serious potential consequences of continuing the vicious circle of escalation in the Palestinian territories. Egypt called on Israel to immediately halt all military actions in the Gaza Strip.

Egypt’s new ambassador to Israel, Khaled Azmi, had met Israeli President Reuven Rivlin on Nov. 8 at the latter’s residence in Jerusalem. Azmi stressed during the meeting his country’s continued efforts to prevent further deterioration of the humanitarian and security situation in the Palestinian territories. He also emphasized the need to find a just solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict by establishing a Palestinian state based on the 1967 borders, with East Jerusalem as its capital.

On Nov. 5, Egypt’s government had postponed an official visit by Brazilian Foreign Minister Aloysio Nunez Ferreira. The visit was scheduled for Nov. 8-11. This came after Brazilian President-elect Jair Bolsonaro recently pledged to transfer his country’s embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, following the US move in May. The postponement was interpreted as an overt Egyptian objection to the recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, though the Egyptian Foreign Ministry gave no official reason for the decision. Egypt also canceled a series of business activities of two Brazilian businessmen in Cairo on Nov. 12, citing conflicting dates.

Tarek Fahmi, director of the Department of Israeli Studies at the National Center for Middle East Studies, said Egypt has adopted a direct political approach to obstruct efforts to transfer foreign embassies from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.

In a phone interview with Al-Monitor, Fahmi said, “Cairo lacks the necessary means to block US and Israeli efforts to see Jerusalem recognized as the capital of Israel, but is trying to employ its diplomatic tools to stop the ongoing Judaization process in the Palestinian territories. Egypt is doing this without directly confronting Washington and Tel Aviv, in light of its common interests with the two countries.”

Fahmi said Egypt is moving along different tracks to thwart Israeli moves, but still needs Arab support, which seems unlikely in the short term. “Arab capitals have opened their doors to Israeli officials,” he said.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visited Oman on Oct. 26. A number of Israeli officials were welcomed in Dubai on Oct. 29.

Fahmi further added, “The US administration made a breakthrough in the Gulf-Israeli relations, as a prelude for [its pending peace plan]. Egypt has its reservations about this.”

Commenting on the Israeli officials’ visits to Arab capitals, he said, “Cairo was never consulted about these visits. This angered the Egyptian political leadership. Egypt has a great history in negotiations with Israel. Its presence in any diplomatic negotiations confers to the Arab movement an important political dimension.”

Al-Monitor also spoke with Mohamed Orabi, a former Egyptian foreign minister and a current member of parliament's Foreign Relations Committee. He said Egypt is exerting political pressure on countries seeking to transfer their Tel Aviv embassies to Jerusalem. He believes Egypt's efforts may push some of these countries to renounce their decisions.

Brazil and Australia say they haven't decided yet on whether to relocate their embassies, despite earlier indications they would.

Asked why Egypt objects to Brazil possibly moving its embassy, but hasn't condemned the US move, Orabi said, “We have close and intertwined interests with the US. Egypt didn't take a hard-line stance toward Washington for many considerations.”

As for resolving Israeli-Palestinian issues, he said Egypt might take a new approach, namely reconciling all Palestinian factions and mobilizing an international and Arab public push to compel Israel to grant Palestinians the rights they demand. “Egypt can't allow [the US peace deal] to pass. This would make it responsible to the Arab people for the ensuing situation of the Palestinians.”

From the little that Arab countries' officials have learned about the deal, many say it greatly favors Israel at Palestinians' expense.

Meanwhile, Rakha Hassan, a member of the Egyptian Council for Foreign Affairs, contended that Egypt's leading role in the Middle East has significantly declined amid its internal economic crisis. “Egypt is burdened by its needs of aid from Gulf countries. It is unable to impose its vision on the Arab scene,” he told Al-Monitor in a phone interview. “Saudi Arabia now acts as the leader of the Arab world. The kingdom has tied the hands of the Arab League, and sidelined Egypt’s regional role.”

Like Hassan, Azmi explained Egypt's failure so far to complete reconciliation among the Palestinian factions by citing Egypt’s economic deficit. “We can't afford to pay the salaries of Gaza’s employees. Meanwhile, Qatar sent its ambassador loaded with millions of dollars into the Gaza Strip. The Egyptian administration policy is now shackled by the country’s need for aid from oil-rich countries,” Egypt ambassador to Israel said.

On Nov. 10, Qatar announced it had brought $15 million in aid to pay the Gaza Strip workers.

Azmi pointed out that Egypt's political leadership is frustrated with the US administration under President Donald Trump. “Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi was betting on the strong support of the US under Trump. He was initially enthusiastic to complete [a US peace plan], but Egypt was disappointed when Washington decided to transfer its embassy to Jerusalem.”

Egypt might not be strong enough to bring about any change on the Palestinian issue, according to Gilan Jaber, a member of the Egyptian Council for Foreign Affairs. “Yet, it's still able to mediate among the Palestinian factions, as well as between the Palestinians and the Israelis, due to its geographic location and also given its long history of negotiations with Israel,” he told Al-Monitor. Jaber praised Egypt for brokering the recent cease-fire between Hamas and Israel.

In April 2017, Sisi visited the White House and told Trump, “You'll find me supporting you very strongly and very earnestly in finding a solution to the problem of the century through the deal of the century,” which is what Trump has dubbed his administration's yet-to-be-unveiled peace plan. But when Sisi met Nov. 5 with foreign media representatives in Egypt, on the sidelines of the 2018 World Youth Forum in Sharm el-Sheikh, he said he had no information on the deal, adding that he won't negotiate something that's not acceptable to the Palestinians.

The Palestinian Authority and Hamas both reject the Trump administration's deal, which Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas described in January as the “slap of the century.” Abbas reiterated his opposition to any US peace proposal following Washington's recognition of Jerusalem as Israel's capital.

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Albaraa Abdullah is an Egyptian journalist based in Cairo. He graduated with a degree in mass communications from October 6 University in 2015, and has worked for ONtvLive as an editor. On Facebook Albaraa Abdullah and Twitter @AlbraaAbdullah

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