Trump's "Deal of the Century" doesn't resonate with Arab leaders

PSE171002MA002CAIRO -- At a White House summit in, Egypt’s President Abdel Fatah El Sisi told President Donald Trump he was confident that working together, the two leaders would “find a solution to the problem of the century in the deal of the century.”

President El Sisi had high hopes to co-broker an Israeli-Palestinian peace with the Americans, securing a good relationship with Trump and reaping economic benefits from a new arrangement in the region that would place Egypt at the center of an Eastern Mediterranean energy hub and attract international investment.

Yet despite ongoing high-level consultations between Cairo and Washington, Egyptian zeal to partner with President Trump’s special envoys, son in law Jared Kushner and Jason Greenblatt, a lawyer with 20 years of service in the Trump Organization – and no prior diplomatic experience – has dimmed in recent months and the pessimism is spreading to other Arab capitals.

Meanwhile, the situation in Gaza has been heating up.

On Thursday, at least 18 Palestinians were wounded As Israel’s air force struck a building in central Gaza City after more than 180 projectiles were fired from the Hamas-ruled enclave into the Jewish state, injuring nearly 20.

It was just the latest in an escalation since May when the Gazans organized mass protests on the Israel border which drew Israeli fire and renewed international attention to the Palestinian cause.

“American endorsement of Jewish claims in Jerusalem, a perception that the US wants to make Gaza an Egyptian problem and increasing doubts that Trump can to find a solution to the Palestinian issue have moved opinion here against the current process,” said Mustafa Kamal, a researcher at Al Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies, a Cairo think tank with close ties to El Sisi’s administration.

That situation is following a meeting on Tuesday between Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry and Greenblatt, Trump’s Special Representative for International Negotiations at the Egyptian Embassy in Washington.

Shoukry warned the Americans that Israeli military actions in the Gaza Strip together with political moves including the recently passed Jewish State Law and expanded Israeli construction in East Jerusalem were escalating tensions and threatening Palestinian rights.

The first signs of divergence between Cairo and Washington over Middle East peacemaking came in December 2017 when the Trump administration swept away decades of US policy toward Jerusalem by opening an embassy to Israel in the Western part of the city – with no plan in place to open a similar diplomatic mission to the Palestinians in the Eastern sector of the contested Holy City.

That was detrimental to the peace process, say analysts.

“The continuing American identification with Israel’s positions is harming the confidence of the US’s Arab allies – Egypt, Jordan, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia – and kills any idea that the Trump Team can be a neutral intermediary in the peace process,” said Kamal explaining the impact of American recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital even as the Netanyahu government dismissed all Palestinian claims to the city.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas returned the slight by severing contact with Kushner and Greenblatt in December following Trump’s Jerusalem embassy announcement.

Most recently Abbas rebuffed an Egyptian attempt to schedule a meeting when the American envoys toured the region in June.
Observers say Jerusalem is not just a bone of contention between the Palestinians and Israelis.

In Amman, Jordan’s King Abdullah is concerned about provisions in the plan to give the Saudis a symbolic presence as security guards in Jerusalem’s Temple Mount area – home to the Al-Aqsa mosque, the third most important site for Muslims after Mecca and Medina.

Facilities at Al-Aqsa mosque have been traditionally managed by a Jordanian religious trust.

Meanwhile, the key ingredient for any peace is missing, says Mohamed Soliman, an Egyptian political analyst based in Cairo.
“Any peace agreement that doesn’t clearly include Eastern Jerusalem as a capital for the Palestinian state will not be acceptable to the greater Arab and Muslim populations,” he said.

“From college campuses to company boardrooms, the feeling is this deal is simply too risky even for our president who was willing to go a long way to keep a special relationship with Trump,” added Soliman. “The consensus now is that Egypt is taken for granted to solve the region’s problems at the expense of its own sovereignty and national interest, and that Trump’s term will certainly last less long than El Sisi’s.”

American attempts to persuade Egypt into opening its territory in the Sinai to Gaza Palestinians particularly rankle the security establishment in Cairo which fought three wars with Israel over control of the peninsula.

And anxiety over the deal has intensified in Egypt as the American negotiators have focused increasingly on fast-tracking an Egypt-Palestinian free-trade zone with plans for construction of a solar-power grid, desalination plant, and airport to be built on the Egyptian side of the border with Gazans moving to the North Sinai to work and even possibly live.

“I am sure our president will not accept a resettlement plan under any circumstances,” said Saeed Okasha, an Israeli affairs analyst at the Al Ahram Institute in Cairo. “We can allow infrastructure for Gaza to be built in the Sinai but there is no flexibility in terms of ceding our lands to solve someone else’s problem.”

Critics of the Kushner/Greenblatt plan to broker a peace place Egypt at the center of energy development say it’s impossible to address the pressing economic needs in Gaza before tackling the long-standing questions of borders and refugees that come with establishment of a Palestinian state.

The refugee issue came into focus again this week after reports came from Amman documenting Kushner’s attempt to get Jordan to remove this status for more than two million registered Palestinians living in that country.

Washington has called for the abolition of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East – the main international body providing services to the Arab population that left the territory, now Israel, during the 1948 War.

“Trump is stirring the pot and increasing the fire thinking he will get faster results from Palestinians,” said Sherif Fathi Elhelwa, chairman of iQ Power, Inc., a Cairo energy development company specializing in renewables. “But stability requires a more carefully scheduled process and if Palestinian, Jordanian and Egyptian needs are ignored, the entire plan for Eastern Mediterranean energy production and processing including exports to Europe will collapse.”

El-Sisi’s diplomatic deputies have made it clear that they will continue talking about regional peace with the Trump administration. At the end of July, Washington released $195 million in military aid to Egypt, funds withheld earlier due to concerns over the country's human rights record.

“We agree on the importance of consultations and coordination between Egypt and the United States in the upcoming period to de-escalate the situation in the occupied Palestinian Territories and to overcome the current stalemate,” said Foreign Minister Shoukry after Tuesday’s meeting with Greenblatt.
But outside of diplomatic quarters, Egypt’ alienation from with the “deal of the century” is bluntly apparent.

"The Americans need to know that other countries who are really interested in a just solution for the Middle East would work with Egypt to pursue one," said Kamal, the Al Ahram researcher. "We will support the Palestinians in their steps toward statehood either by participating in the implementation of the French initiative (to expedite Palestinian statehood without US mediation) or by going to the UN Security Council."

Photo: Oct 2, 2017-Gaza, Palestine - People gathered to welcome the Palestinian Government and to support the reconciliation between Fatah and Hamas in October 2017.
Credit: Mohammed Atallah/ ARA Network Inc.

Story/photo published date: 08/12/18

A version of this story was published in The Washington Times.
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