Egypt: Taking the Lead

Alon Ben-Meir has just returned from a second extensive trip in as many months to Israel, Egypt, and Palestine where he met with scores of government officials, political party leaders, academics and ordinary citizens. This is the last article in a series of three reflecting some of his findings.

No country is better positioned than Egypt to influence Hamas to renounce violence, recognize Israel, and enter into peace negotiations. A careful examination of Egypt’s special relationship with Hamas and some insight into what power Egypt is able to wield over it indicates that Hamas cannot without hurting itself completely ignore Egypt’s demands or withstand the pressure that Cairo can bring to bear. For a host of reasons, the Palestinians need Egypt and prefer to maintain normal relations with the most populous and powerful Arab state rather than alienate it.

Egypt provides the only, at least at present, opening for the Palestinians to the outside world. It was also instrumental in helping Israel and Hamas reach a ceasefire agreement; is in charge of the Rafah crossing; and remains the Palestinian’s most potentially significant trading partner. In addition, Egypt is at peace with Israel and holds tremendous sway across the Arab world. For these and many other reasons, Egypt’s intelligence chief Omer Suleiman, the nation’s second most powerful man after President Mubarak, recently made three forceful public demands of Hamas: “One, they should stop the violence. Two, it should become doctrine with them to be committed to all the agreements signed with Israel. Three, they have to recognize Israel.” He added that if Hamas’ leadership “does not commit to these conditions, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas will not be obliged to ask Hamas to form a new government.”

Hamas will certainly hear these requirements, but the real pressure will come if the Egyptian government initiates three critical measures which only Egypt is in a position to undertake with a strong probability of success.

First, Convene an Arab League Conference: President Mubarak should call on the heads of the Arab states or at a minimum their foreign ministers to convene a special session of the Arab League to discuss Hamas’ democratic rise to power and to reinstate the Arab League’s resolution passed in March 27, 2002 in Beirut, Lebanon, a resolution initiated by Crown Prince Abdullah of Saudi Arabia (now King Abdullah). The resolution calls for Israel’s withdrawal from occupied Arab lands, the establishment of a Palestinian state, and a fair solution to the refugee problem based on UN resolution 194, in return for collective security guarantees by every Arab state in the region to Israel, the signing of a peace treaty, and normalization of relations between all Arab states and Israel. Reaffirming the resolution not only will exert tremendous pressure on Hamas, it will also provide the leaders of Hamas with a face-saving “way out” with their core constituency, a way of reconciling its stated goal of destroying Israel with the emerging imperative to renounce violence and recognize Israel. Egypt must take the lead in calling for such a conference.

Second, Deal Effectively with the Muslim Brotherhood: Negotiating with Hamas will transcend any agreement that may emerge because of the ramifications a more moderate Hamas will have on other Arab states with strong Muslim Brotherhood constituencies besides Egypt, such as Jordan. Hamas’ victory in the elections represents a milestone in the Brotherhood’s growth, coming on the heels of the Brotherhood’s impressive gains in Egypt’s own recent parliamentary elections. Therefore, it is in the vital interests of the Arab states, especially Egypt, which is likely to be the state most affected by the growing influence of the Brotherhood, to pursue a strategy consistent with the Egyptian position on Israel and its long-standing commitment to remain a secular state. Hamas’ recent electoral triumph marks the first time in Arab history that the Brotherhood has assumed power over an Arab entity. Mr. Suleiman’s remarks indicate that Egypt wants to deal with this phenomenon from a position of strength insisting that no Brotherhood group, inside or outside Egypt, can resort to violence and violate with impunity internationally accepted accords. That Jordan reaffirmed its own stand and demanded from Hamas the same measures as Egypt did, augurs well for the future provided, of course, that both these nations stay the course and other Arab nations follow their lead and act with similar steadfastness.

Third, Establish a Quartet of Regional States: Egypt should immediately call on Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and Turkey to join in forming a quartet that will facilitate, guide and assist Hamas to moderate its positions. Each of these countries has something special to offer in this situation: Egypt, because of all the reasons previously mentioned; Saudi Arabia, because of its role as custodian of the holiest Muslim shrines, its unique financial influence, and its sponsorship of the 2002 Arab League resolution; Jordan, because it is custodian of the third holiest Muslim shrine in Jerusalem and also enjoys a unique relationship with the Palestinian people. (Sixty percent of the Jordanian population is of Palestinian decent). Jordan too is at peace with Israel and would of course be the next door neighbor of the future Palestinian state as well as being its gateway to the East. As for Turkey, it has been instrumental in assisting the Palestinians and because of its special ties has the potential to play a vital role in the peace process and in any Palestinian future development. Specifically, Turkey has trained and clothed Palestinian security forces, is involved in many development projects, including the Eretz Industrial Park, which when completed could employ more than 10,000 Palestinian laborers, especially women. In addition, as a democratic state with an overwhelming Muslim population, Turkey, the first Muslim country to make peace with Israel, would be able to provide a perfect example of how Islamic and secular groups can coexist in a coalition government. It is important to note here that pressure by Muslim nations within the region will be far more palatable to Hamas than pressure from outside.

Finally, the quartet’s creation and its commitment to work toward moderating Hamas’ position, coupled with the reaffirmation of the resolution passed by the Arab League in 2002, will enhance Israel’s confidence in the prospects for a peaceful solution. In fact, the degree of Israel’s cooperation with any future Palestinian Authority, including transfer of taxes, mobility of people and goods, exports to Israel, check points, as well as a host of other restrictions that Israel can impose, will largely depend not just on Hamas’ conduct but its intentions. Hamas needs this cooperation from Israel to literally manage the daily lives of Palestinians. Egypt’s good offices with Israel and the Palestinians could go a long way in mediating a much better environment in which Hamas can govern.

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