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“New Egypt” the Wild Card in Stalled Mideast Peace Process

Inter Press Service

The ability of the United States to broker a successful Palestinian-Israeli peace agreement will hinge on the future of Israeli-Egyptian relations, a panel of experts at the Palestinian Centre argued on Thursday.

Given the emergent political dynamics of post-Mubarak Egypt, the panelists called for a renewed focus on the “Palestinian question” and for the United States to be more assertive in its stance on Israeli settlements and Palestinian national unity.

Although the White House is focused on more immediate events in the region, they argued that it is in the midst of a fleeting opportunity to encourage reconciliation between parties in the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) and place pressure on a new Egyptian government to carefully consider the possible repercussions of any break from Israel, with whom Cairo has struck a consistent yet uneasy 33-year peace and whose blockade on the Gaza strip it has supported.

Ambassador Clovis Maksoud, director of the Centre for the Global South at the American University, also argued that, ultimately, continued U.S. acceptance of Israel's isolation of Gaza and occupation of the West Bank will be detrimental to Israeli-Egyptian relations and will preclude any peace deal between Israel and the PLO, unified or not.

"If [the U.S.] does not admit that Israel is an occupying power, then the peace process is a process without peace," Maksoud said.

Last week, the U.S. vetoed a U.N. Security Council resolution that condemned Israel's settlement policy.

Meanwhile, although domestic priorities will dominate the agenda of any new Egyptian government, Maksoud predicted that Cairo will be expected to make clear decisions regarding the 'Palestinian question'.

Prominent Egyptian theologian Yusuf al-Qardawi called for 'dignified negotiations' with Gaza-based Hamas last week, including discussions over the blockade, but other Muslim Brotherhood officials such as Assam el-Erian have repeatedly argued that any decision impacting relations with Israel should be determined through a popular referendum.

While Egypt re-opened the lone exit and entry point to the outside world for Gazans this week, the panelists said that Egyptian-Israeli ties will grow more tense with the possibility of a break in the blockade and a more porous border between Egypt and Gaza.

Regardless of any Egyptian move to lift the blockade or even nullify its peace treaty with Israel, U.S. policy would be limited if Israel were to avoid re-engaging the Palestinians based on concerns over security near its southern border, they argued.

A breakdown in direct Palestinian-Israeli negotiations, brokered by the U.S. in September 2010, has resulted in the Palestinian Authority (PA) making an independent appeal to the U.N. for recognition of statehood.

While some believe it would be in the United States' and Israel's best interests to work with an internationally recognized Palestinian government, the conference panelists argued that a successful deal on larger issues such as the jurisdiction of Jerusalem and the return of Palestinian refugees would not be likely if anxieties over security remained exploitable or the PLO remained fragmented.

In a recent move to appease domestic discontent, the PLO announced parliamentary elections would take place for the first time since 2006. Hamas was quick to deny the legitimacy of any scheduled elections.

However, PA Prime Minister Salam Fayyad's recent gestures towards Hamas indicate that an internal shift towards PA- Hamas reconciliation, which would be contingent on Hamas's assurance not to break its ceasefire agreement, seems more likely as Fatah turns its attention towards multilateral avenues of statehood recognition – a step greatly advantaged by a politically unified party, inclusive of Hamas.

"There are some trends that will help the PA regime maintain its position, including the fact that the West and the Western media are vested in the Fayyadist dream of institution building under occupation and trying to get a state, as well as growing support for the PA's plan to seek U.N. recognition of statehood," said panelist Nadia Hijab, co-director of the Palestinian Policy Network.

"All of this will help to perpetuate the PA regime in the West Bank and Gaza, but none of it will shake Israel's control of the territories," she added.

"The Palestinian situation I think is unsustainable, but I do think that the Obama administration doesn't know where to go," said panelist Michelle Dunne, former specialist on Middle East affairs at the White House and U.S. Department of State.

"Unfortunately, they are dealing with an Israeli government that has already shown no interest in reaching an agreement with the Palestinians and now seems to be looking at regional events as a reason to do less rather than more," she argued.

As Israeli Prime Minister Tzipi Livni made clear in his Washington Post op-ed on Thursday, the path to Palestinian statehood will require acknowledgment of a new paradigm in regional relations and that leaders from all sides are willing to accept a new reality in order to make essential compromises over Palestinian-Israeli peace.

"[M]ere anxiety is not a policy for any leader, the values and experience of the Jewish people demand that we embrace the promise of real democratic change, not merely express concern about uncertainties associated with it," he wrote.

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