WASHINGTON: Less than two years ago, the situation between Israel and the Palestinian territories seemed to be on the brink of disaster. In November 2012, Israeli air strikes pummelled the Gaza Strip while militants fired rockets back at Israeli towns. As scores of Palestinians died and Israeli families cowered, the international community seemed split and unsure about how to deal with it. Experienced international mediators looked impotent.
In fact, the one man who seemed able to step in had been a world leader only for a few months. And, unfortunately, he would be a world leader only for a few months longer.
At the time, Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi’s role in the Israeli-Palestinian talks was something of a revelation. After the conclusion of the talks, all sides seemed to agree that Egypt had played the key role in solving the crisis. Here’s how The Post’s Michael Birnbaum put it in 2012: “The end result — an agreement between Israel and Hamas, which have long refused to acknowledge each other, brokered by a neighbouring Islamist government — would have been unthinkable before the Arab Spring reshaped the region less than two years ago, toppling autocrats who had long held political Islam at bay and strengthening the hand of once-isolated groups such as Hamas.”
Know more: Israel kills another 24 Palestinians
Morsi had played a different game than his predecessor, Hosni Mubarak. Critics of the Egyptian autocrat had long argued that he had bowed to Israeli and US pressure to isolate the Gaza Strip and Hamas. Morsi, of course, was part of the Muslim Brotherhood, the Islamist movement that eventually gave birth to Hamas. Soon after entering office, he eased travel for Palestinians across the Rafah crossing in southern Gaza, a small but clearly noteworthy change of course.
As negotiations began in November 2012, no one was surprised that Morsi came down on the side of the Palestinians. What was surprising, however, was that he seemed to be able to do so without alienating the Israelis. The Egyptian president pledged to adhere to the 1979 Israel-Egypt peace treaty, for example, and kept lines of communication to Israel and the United States open as tensions grew. The communication and good faith proved fruitful: just minutes before the brokered truce went into effect, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu publicly said that he wanted to express his “appreciation for the efforts of Egypt to obtain a ceasefire”.
Times have changed, and Morsi isn’t around to help mediate today’s Israeli-Palestinian crisis. Egypt’s first democratically elected leader was forced out of office a year ago; he is facing a number of criminal charges related to his time in office. Morsi was eventually replaced by Egyptian military leader Abdel Fatah al-Sissi in an election this year that left many international observers underwhelmed.
Exactly what Sissi makes of the Palestinian situation is unclear. On the one hand, since his election, he has significantly tightened the borders with the Gaza Strip. However, before he was elected, he said he would not receive an Israeli prime minister without concessions to Palestinians. Egypt’s ambassador to the Palestinian territories, Wael Nasr El-Din, attended the funeral of the Palestinian teenager allegedly killed by Israeli extremists last weekend, and there is talk of some kind of Egypt-brokered deal happening. Hamas is certainly not a natural ally for Egypt’s new government, but, as Palestinian political scientist Ali Jarbawi noted in an op-ed for The New York Times, Sissi does appear to be trying to move his foreign policy away from US interests into a more independent direction. More support for Palestinian causes may be a way for him to show Egypt’s geopolitical clout in the face of other regional giants such as Turkey and Iran.
Would Morsi have been able to defuse the current tensions between the Israelis and the Palestinians? Perhaps not — this situation is different from the one in 2012 and arguably far more complicated. But it’s hard to deny that with the military coup that ousted Morsi, one of the glimmers of hope in Middle East diplomacy appears to have been extinguished just before we needed it most. And we’re still not entirely sure what has replaced it.
—By arrangement with The Washington Post
Published in Dawn, July 11th, 2014