Egyptian President Fattah El Sisi’s frosty “no” without explanation to an American invitation to attend the US-Africa August summit taking place in Washington was a straw in the wind. It was not heeded.
A few days before US Secretary of State John Kerry departed for Cairo on July 20, White House officials were still debating whether or not President Barack Obama should dip a finger in the Gaza fray. By then, the administration had been apprised by its intelligence sources that the leaders of the new pact between Saudi Arabia and Israel were more determined than ever to obstruct the Obama administration’s steps in support of Iran and the Muslim Brotherhood.
The understanding leading up to this pact was forged by Saudi King Abdullah and the Egyptian President on June 21 when they talked onboard the Saudi royal plane on a Cairo stopover.
Some of Obama’s advisers warned that, by traveling to Cairo, Kerry would play directly into the hands of the Saudi king, who accuses the US president of impeding the Egyptian-Saudi-UAE campaign against the Muslim Brotherhood, at every turn since the ouster of former Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood a year ago.
Obama’s aides fear Kerry mission would further strain ties with Riyadh
Any suggestion by the secretary of state that the Brotherhood’s offshoot Hamas ought to be left in power and retain a part of its military strength would be bound to further strain the already strung out relations between Riyadh and Washington.
But Obama decided to ignore this counsel and dispatched Kerry to Cairo, reasoning that the US can’t be seen to be unwilling to step in when hundreds of Palestinians are dying.
But as soon as he touched town in Cairo, Kerry found he had landed in murkier waters than the White House had anticipated.
Sisi refused to budge from his original unconditional ceasefire proposal. He informed Kerry bluntly that he would not even look at any proposal which incorporated Hamas’ terms – in particular, the lifting of the Egyptian blockade on the Gaza Strip’s Rafah gateway to Sinai to enable people and goods to flow freely across the border.
On no account would Sisi contemplate any deal that cut into Egyptian sovereignty over its border with the Gaza Strip, DEBKA Weekly’s sources quote him as telling the US Secretary with great emphasis. All he would consider was letting Palestinian Authority security personnel take charge of the Gaza border. But this he knew Hamas would never countenance.
US turns to Hamas patron, Qatar, in ceasefire bid
Rebuffed firmly by Cairo, Kerry turned to backdoor dealings with Qatari ruler Sheikh Al Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, patron of Hamas and the Brotherhood. The secretary of state asked the emir to put the squeeze on Hamas, whose political leader Khaled Meshaal, has his relocated his business headquarters to Doha after being kicked out of Damascus.
Our ears on the ground say the secretary of state told Al Thani to squeeze Meshaal hard, including even a threat to cut off of funding for Hamas or expel Meshaal – if his group stood by its rejection of the Egyptian proposal.
But the Qatari leader refused to play. Instead, on July 22, he used his own back door to Saudi King Abdullah and asked him to lean on Sisi to soften his position.
The late-night conversation between the two Arab rulers led nowhere when Abdullah refused to opt out of his cooperation with the Egyptian president and Israeli prime minister in the Gaza offensive against Hamas.
(For more on this cooperation, see a separate item in this issue).
Two distinct camps on Gaza war, but no ceasefire deal
This flurry of diplomacy has not as yet generated a ceasefire deal but it has consolidated two camps at opposite ends of the Gaza conflict: The US has taken the lead of the camp consisting of Qatar and the Palestinian Authority headed by Chairman Mahmoud Abbas, which stands against Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Israel.
As a week of failed diplomacy drew to a close, Kerry made a last-ditch attempt to bridge the gap between the two camps with a proposal for a ceasefire, to be followed by two post-war tracks – one for rehabilitating Gaza and restoring its economy with funding from Saudi Arabia and Qatar; the other for Hamas and the Islamic Jihad to be simultaneously stripped in stages of their military capabilities.
The Kerry package has only a slim chance of weathering the complexities of the Gaza conflict. King Abdullah is unlikely to break faith with Egypt and Israel and in no mood to send Hamas cash gifts. So long as the Obama administration keeps to its resolve of preserving Hamas’ military and political wings, Kerry’s mission is a nonstarter.