Amid lack of a unified vision among Palestinian factions on how to contend with the Israeli occupation and Sharon’s plan to withdraw from the Gaza Strip, Egypt’s latest initiative is both timely and prudent. It should be noted that Egypt’s move does not come, as many would like to argue, to put an end to the intifada. Its intervention comes to save the Palestinians from a defeat at the hands of Israel.
Egypt believes that Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s plan is a foregone conclusion. Hence, Egypt is concerned that Hamas could take over the Strip and embolden the Islamic movements in Egypt. Officials in Egypt intend to play a leading role in securing some kind of tranquility in Gaza, to prevent chaos from reigning in the Strip. Thus Egypt has been trying to obtain an Israeli commitment not to attack Gaza after the withdrawal. To this end, Cairo has sought to get the international community to join its efforts.
Equally important, Egypt has a clear understanding of how to deal with Israel. It learned the hard way how to liberate its occupied territories. In the late 1970s, then-President Anwar Sadat came to the conclusion that Israel’s weakness is at the negotiation table rather than on the battlefield. Unfortunately, many Palestinian factions have failed to see this logic. Belief in the utility of force in dealing with Israel is widespread. With such thinking prevailing among Gazans, Egypt should be seen as a positive third party intervening to balance the conduct of Palestinian militias. Indeed, the Palestinians are not expected to gain independence and liberation without the sincere efforts of key countries, chief among them Egypt. The fact that Egypt is willing, even keen on intervening in Gaza is a positive step that should be encouraged rather than fought.
Egypt’s initiative is consistent with President Hosni Mubarak’s strategy of making Sharon’s plan part of the shelved roadmap. Egypt has sought the Palestinians’ consent with some success. Despite odd voices coming from some on the fringe of Palestinian politics, Egypt has managed to get the Palestinians to agree in principle to its strategy.
Egypt’s role in shoring up Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat has been indispensable. Loss of this role would badly affect the Palestinian leadership. Nonetheless, after years of dealing with the Palestinian-Israeli track, the Egyptian leadership has come to the conclusion that to avert unnecessary Palestinians losses, Arafat must be sidelined. Indeed, this is the conclusion of many Arabs, but those who voice it in public are a minority. Egypt recently made some demands from Arafat, the realization of which would help the Palestinian cause yet weaken Arafat within the Palestinian body politic. Egypt made it clear to Arafat that he is expected to unite the plethora of security agencies under the control of the Ministry of Interior. It also demanded that Arafat bestow more prerogatives on the prime minister. That Egypt has formally asked Arafat to concede some of his prerogatives is a marked change in Egyptian foreign policy vis-a-vis the Palestinian cause.
It seems that there is no internal force that can ditch or sideline Arafat. Time and again, he has proved a master tactician. But Arafat should understand the motive behind Egypt’s move and act accordingly, or he will run the risk of losing the Egyptian umbrella. His maneuvering room is increasingly narrow. The time has come for him to make a brave decision that transcends personal considerations and helps the Palestinian cause. Getting entrenched in the mantra that he is the elected leader and that the Israelis are not prone to peace will hardly help the Palestinian cause. It would be a sign of greatness to come out in public and admit that his leadership, though legitimate, will not help the realization of the Palestinian national dream for which thousands of Palestinians have paid their lives.
Since Arafat is unlikely to take such a step, external pressure to bring about positive change is needed. Many Gazans welcome the Egyptian plan to guarantee the security and stability that they have long sought.
Perhaps it is naive to say that once Arafat met the Egyptian demands, matters would improve. A quandary would still lie with Israel, where we witness the difficulty Sharon has had in selling his reduced plan. Nevertheless, sidelining Arafat would cause a sea change in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and could even bring about changes within Israel. Sharon and like-minded politicians would thus be exposed to the whole world while concurrently losing their standing within Israel. Changing the Palestinian power structure would remove a stumbling block in the path of rehabilitating the Palestinians politically, and clear the path for restarting the peace process. Therefore, the Egyptian initiative is a positive step.