In the past month, tension has increased between the Palestinian Authority and Egypt following attempts by Egypt to mediate between Hamas and Israel and reach an agreement for long-term calm. Egypt has made the issue of achieving a calm a higher priority than internal Palestinian reconciliation and the possibility of restoring full control of the Gaza Strip to the Palestinian Authority.
According to senior Palestinian figures, as a result of this tension, a planned meeting between PA Chairman Mahmoud Abbas and Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi that was supposed to take place during discussions at the UN General Assembly was canceled.
In a tense telephone conversation between President el-Sisi and the PA chairman, which took place in September 2018, the Egyptian president demanded that Abbas lift the sanctions he imposed on the Gaza Strip out of concern that they could lead to an explosion due to the harsh humanitarian crisis.
However, Abbas refused to back down. When el-Sisi told him he is “endangering Egyptian national security,” Abbas replied, “What is endangering Egyptian national security is the establishment of the Muslim Brotherhood state in the Gaza Strip that Hamas is aspiring toward.”
The newspaper Al-Araby Al-Jadeed even reported on October 8, 2018, that according to a senior Egyptian source, mutual threats were made between the PA chairman and senior Egyptian officials over President Trump’s “deal of the century.”
Mahmoud Abbas is furious that Egypt is working with Hamas on an agreement to secure a long-term calm with Israel behind his back. He warned that if things carry on this way, “the Palestinian Authority will fall apart, and everyone will have to take responsibility for this.”
In contacts with senior Egyptian figures, Abbas accused Egypt of “an attempt to benefit from the Palestinian problem for its own interests and to exploit it up till the last minute.”
According to a senior Egyptian source, the Egyptian reaction to Abbas’ statement was harsh, but Abbas has nevertheless emerged half victorious from this round of arguments.
Ultimately, Egypt had to accept Abbas’ demand first to achieve a reconciliation between Fatah and Hamas that will enable the restoration of the Palestinian Authority to total rule over the Gaza Strip. It will be able, only after that, to discuss an agreement for calm between Hamas and Israel that will be led by the Palestinian Authority.
Egyptian intelligence is trying to follow this path, but it has encountered many difficulties with Hamas.
Hamas has no political achievements since the beginning of its “Return March” campaign on March 30, 2018. It has failed to keep its promise to the Gazan community to remove the blockade on the Gaza Strip, and it urgently needs an achievement that it can present to the Gaza residents.
Hamas can only achieve a significant relaxation of the closure from Israel, so it is interested in being the party to secure the agreement for calm.
Meetings without Success
Last week, the heads of Egyptian intelligence invited a Hamas delegation to Cairo to discuss a new proposal for mediation that they formulated.
According to senior Palestinian figures, this is a new proposal for achieving calm with Israel without upsetting the Palestinian Authority and its leader.
The talks with Hamas concluded without achieving a breakthrough.
Meanwhile, Mahmoud Abbas has opened a series of talks with Fatah and PLO institutions. The PLO Central Council will convene on October 26 in Ramallah to discuss the Palestinian Authority’s relations with Israel and with Hamas under the new conditions that have been created.
On the agenda will be the imposition of new sanctions on Gaza and the cancellation of the monthly financial aid that the Palestinian Authority provides to the Hamas government to the tune of $96 million for running educational and cultural programs in the Gaza Strip.
Egypt is very concerned that this move will lead to an explosion in Gaza. Both Egypt and Israel are concerned that it may lead to a military conflagration that would have regional ramifications.
Egypt, Israel, and UN envoy Nickolay Mladenov are trying to discourage Abbas from taking this direction, but it seems that Abbas intends at the very least to put practical mechanisms in place for the implementation of any new sanctions decided upon by the PLO Central Council.
According to senior Fatah officials, relations between the Palestinian Authority and Egypt are tense but have not been completely severed. Both sides need each other and are not interested in a collapse of talks.
Apparently, any final decisions regarding the reconciliation and a calm with Israel will only be decided at the end of October 2018, at the assembly of the PLO Central Council. Egypt is maintaining an open channel with the Palestinian Authority even though it believes that Mahmoud Abbas is playing a dangerous game that could inflame a fragile situation in the area, which would not benefit either side.
Yoni Ben Menachem, a veteran Arab affairs and diplomatic commentator for Israel Radio and Television, is a senior Middle East analyst for the Jerusalem Center. He served as Director General and Chief Editor of the Israel Broadcasting Authority.