When representatives of the two major Palestinian factions, Fatah and Hamas, signed a new reconciliation agreement in Cairo on Oct. 12, the focus was not on those actually doing the signing, Fatah Central Committee member Azzam al-Ahmad and Deputy Head of the Hamas Politburo Saleh al-Arouri. Instead, all eyes were on the man standing behind them: Khaled Fawzy, the head of Egypt’s General Intelligence Directorate.
The ceremony, held at the intelligence agency’s headquarters, was orchestrated entirely by the Egyptians, who view the reconciliation as a steppingstone to a much larger goal. As the agreement stated in its opening, it stemmed from Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi’s “insistence” on ending the divisions among Palestinians, “with the aim of creating an independent state” along pre-1967 borders.
Egypt’s leadership in this process will raise the country’s standing in the Arab world, reinforcing its position as a regional heavyweight. Already, the reconciliation agreement between Hamas and Fatah has gone some way toward achieving that, while providing a badly needed morale boost for Sisi’s government.
The good news for Egypt is that the Palestinians have shown a renewed willingness not only to pursue reconciliation, but also to pursue a difficult negotiating process with Israel and its main strategic ally, the United States. This revival of Palestinian national politics largely reflects the recent shift in Hamas’ stance, which follows years of trials for the Sunni Islamist organization.
The troubles for Hamas began when it chose to back the wrong side in both Syria and Egypt. Syrian dictator Bashar Assad’s regime prevailed over the Hamas-supported Islamic rebels in Damascus, while the Hamas-backed Muslim Brotherhood government in Egypt, led by Mohammad Morsi, fell after a year. Then, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain severed diplomatic relations with Qatar, causing Hamas to lose its Qatari and Iranian financial and political support.
With few friends and even fewer sponsors in the region, Hamas had little choice but to return to its fellow Palestinian. The group quickly and unconditionally accepted President Mahmoud Abbas’ three demands: to dissolve the Hamas-led administrative committee, to allow the Ramallah-based Palestinian government to resume its role in Gaza, and to allow presidential and parliamentary elections to take place in both Gaza and the West Bank.
Reconciliation among the Palestinians will certainly open the way for peace, not least because the new elections will deliver the needed legitimacy to those tasked with handling negotiations with Israel. But the real work – for Egypt and the Palestinians – lies ahead.
In order to achieve an independent Palestinian state along pre-1967 borders, both actors will need to work with both the U.S., under President Donald Trump, and Israel, under Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. On this front, expectations are low.
Trump claims that he will deliver the “ultimate deal” to resolve the Israel-Palestine conflict. But Trump and Netanyahu, feeding each other’s hawkishness, both remain unwilling to accept what the rest of the world views as the basic premise of any good deal: a two-state solution. And the aging Abbas is unlikely to accept whatever bad deal the decidedly pro-Israel Trump administration offers.
Even that futile scenario might be optimistic, as it assumes that talks get off the ground – an impossible feat, if Israel continues its illegal construction of settlements in the occupied Palestinian territories. Such activities are not just unjust; they are a violation of United Nations Security Council Resolution 2334, adopted nearly unanimously last year (the U.S., then led by Barack Obama, abstained). That resolution demanded “that Israel immediately and completely cease all settlement activities in the occupied Palestinian territory, including East Jerusalem” – activities that amount to a “flagrant violation under international law.”
Any agreement between Israelis and Palestinians will require deep concessions by both sides – concessions that leaders on both sides will need to convince their respective publics to accept.
Trump’s son-in-law and adviser, Jared Kushner, who has been tasked with settling the conflict, and the Trump administration’s chief negotiator on the issue, Jason Greenblatt, seem to understand this. Egypt certainly does, having made it clear that a divided Palestinian leadership without a public mandate, like the one to be delivered by new elections, will be unable to carry out serious negotiations or win popular support for any eventual agreement.
The question is whether the Israelis will be willing to make such concessions, allowing either a two-state solution or a system of genuine and credible power-sharing within a single state.
If they aren’t, the recent Palestinian reconciliation, however positive, will not mark the beginning of the end of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It will merely be the start of a new chapter in the struggle for freedom for Palestinians.
Daoud Kuttab, an award-winning Palestinian journalist, is a former professor of journalism at Princeton University. THE DAILY STAR publishes this commentary in collaboration with Project Syndicate © (www.project-syndicate.org).
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on October 18, 2017, on page 7.