Egypt’s delicate role

The Egyptian role in the Israeli plan to disengage from the Gaza Strip is one of two major modifications Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon introduced after first failing to gain the support of his own party for his disengagement plan. The other is the gradualism whereby this plan is supposed to be implemented in several phases. Most recently, Sharon decided to have his cabinet vote on each phase separately. From a Palestinian point of view, this gradualism is an additional problem with a plan that never excited the Palestinians for the following reasons: it does not fit within the roadmap, is not based on international law, will not improve the situation in the West Bank, and does not give the impression that it is a step toward the eventual end of the occupation.

The proposed Egyptian role in this modified plan is perceived positively by the Palestinian leadership, which has traditionally had good relations with Egypt, but it is controversial among the Palestinian public. The Egyptian role is delicate, because it is based on two objectives: (1) trying to satisfy Israel’s security needs on the Gaza-Egypt border, and (2) helping to improve Palestinian security by restructuring, training, and rehabilitating the Palestinian security forces in Gaza to enable the Palestinian side to fulfill its commitments in the first phase of the roadmap.

In addition to the plan that Egypt discussed with the Palestinian side, the Egyptians also presented certain demands to the Israeli side: the necessity of a full and complete withdrawal from the Gaza Strip and an end to Israeli hostilities and violence against Palestinians, including assassinations, incursions, home demolitions, and so on. In addition, Egypt is also requiring that Israel ease measures in the West Bank, especially those related to Palestinian daily life, such as restrictions on movement and other Israeli measures considered by the Palestinians and the international community as illegal collective punishment.

As a result of these objectives and requirements, the success or failure of the Egyptian intervention will depend on the Egyptians’ ability to get the two sides to deliver their commitments simultaneously. The main reason for the failure of previous attempts–Zinni, Tenet, and the Mitchell commission–was that Israel always succeeded in convincing the American mediators to accept a sequential rather than simultaneous approach. If Israel started by withdrawing, dismantling some settlements and ceasing to expand others, ending the policy of restricting Palestinian movement, and continuing to fulfill other requirements of the roadmap, then the Palestinians–who remain ready to fulfill their corresponding obligations to the roadmap–would be able to do so simultaneously. However, if the Palestinians are e! xpected yet again to start first, while Israel continues its usual practices (including assassinations, home demolitions, movement restrictions and settlement expansion), then history will repeat itself yet again, and we will find ourselves further embroiled in the continuing cycle of violence.

The main difficulty Egypt will face in this role is the fact that internal Israeli politics are not conducive to any positive change. The developments in Israel regarding Sharon’s plan showed everybody that the current Israeli political elite in power is not mature enough to move forward on the basis of international law as embodied in the roadmap. For this reason, a continuous international role, especially by the United States–the only country that can influence Israel–is a necessary component for success.