From the outside, US Secretary of State John Kerry looked like molding his first foray into Middle East peacemaking around a series of small steps, mostly economic, for enticing Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) out of his long sulk to face Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu at the negotiating table.
From the inside, DEBKA-Net-Weekly's Middle East sources present a different picture. The American, Israeli, Arab and Turkish players with whom Kerry talked received the same impression: The US has given up on a solid and defined policy on the Israeli-Palestinian issue and turned to a series of graduated steps, some mutually inconsistent, but all centering on a push for reconciliation within the Palestinian camp.
After that is achieved, the Obama administration will count on three regional rulers, Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan, Qatari ruler Amir al-Thani, and Jordan’s King Abdullah to bring to the table a unified Palestinian delegation which includes the radical Hamas in Gaza as well as its rival Fatah in Ramallah.
In this venture, the obstacles facing Secretary Kerry far outweigh its realistic prospects:
Kerry helped the Turkish-Israeli thaw
1. Kerry was able to smooth out some of the bumps remaining in the path of a thaw in the deep crisis between Turkey and Israel. The first steps toward rapprochement between Ankara and Jerusalem have been short, considering their vast differences. But there is still a long way to go.
The US Secretary urged Erdogan to make some attitude adjustments if he wanted to be taken seriously by Netanyahu as a peace sponsor. For instance, he managed to get Erdogan to drop his plan to make hay from his incipient strategic, economic and military rapport with Israel to the advantage of the hardline Palestinian Hamas in Gaza.
The Turkish prime minister had planned to visit the Gaza Strip in mid-April to trumpet his success in bringing Israel’s prime minister to his knees by forcing him to apologize for the Marmara incident. He intended to drive into Gaza City in an open car sitting beside the triumphant Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal.
But Wednesday, April 10, he suddenly called off his Gaza trip until after he visits the White House in mid-May. It took two phone calls to Kerry – from Prime Minister Netanyahu and Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi – to pull Erdogan off his high horse, although he climbed back on as soon as the US Secretary was out of the region.
Egypt’s mistrust of Hamas runs deep
2. Egypt’s mistrust of Hamas is another sticking-point in Kerry’s project.
Meshaal was reelected head of the Hamas Politburo by the movement’s Shura Council meeting at the InterContinental Hotel in Nasr City Cairo on April 1. His ally ex-Prime Minister of Gaza Ismail Haniyeh was chosen as Vice President.
Although the vote was held under the strict supervision of Egyptian intelligence, Cairo is not pleased with the result for four reasons:
– Meshaal is setting up his bureau and center of operations in Doha rather than Cairo, so that the Qatari emir will acquire the Gaza Strip as his sphere of influence at the expense of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood whose pull with the Palestinians will accordingly diminish.
– Cairo is not convinced by the US, European and Qatari and Turkish diplomats who maintain that the Meshaal-Haniyeh election win was a victory for the moderate Hamas wing over the pro-Iranian radicals.
Egypt was gravely upset by learning that Hamas was jointly responsible with Al Qaeda-linked elements in Sinai for the attack on an Egyptian border police outpost in Rafah near the Israeli border on August 5, 2012, which left 16 Egyptian commandos dead.
Egyptian intelligence obtained hard evidence that Hamas operatives tipped off the attackers and led them to their target. Cairo relayed to Gaza City the names of the accused operatives and demanded their extradition. Hamas refused to hand them over.
Egyptian and Israeli concerns about Hamas’s shady Sinai connections
– The Egyptians are therefore deeply concerned by the burgeoning interrelations between the Hamas rulers of Gaza and the Al Qaeda-affiliated Salafists of Sinai and also distrust Hamas’s role in abetting the large network shuttling smuggled Libyan arms to Middle East clients.
It was their connections with Hamas that enabled the smuggling networks to make the Sinai desert peninsula a key wayside hub on their routes to markets. From Cairo’s perspective, Hamas was instrumental in undermining Egyptian sovereignty in Sinai.
Israel shares both of Cairo's concerns about Hamas and its shady connections.
This week, IDF forces in southern Israeli were placed on high alert, and Iron Dome missile batteries deployed at the two important port-towns of Ashkelon and Eilat on information of a forthcoming, multiple Salafi-Al Qaeda attack from Sinai.
The danger was averted by the arrest in Gaza of 41 activists from these organizations in a show of willingness by Hamas to cooperate with Egypt and Israel in countering terror.
However, an Israeli military delegation which arrived in Cairo Thursday, April 11, has plenty to discuss with is Egyptian hosts.
How moderate is moderate when it comes to Hamas?
3. Not everyone is convinced that the Hamas fundamentalists, long branded by the US and the EU as terrorists, have changed their spots. Some US and other Western officials, influenced by Turkey and Qatar, are now claiming this is so on the strength of Hamas’s willingness to get involved in the Syrian conflict on the side of the rebels.
Hamas instructors are reaching Syria with the help of Turkish intelligence and Qatari funds. Turkey and Qatar consider Hamas is now worthy of an American seal of approval as participants in the Palestinian delegation to peace talks with Israel.
Kerry and his strategists still see this as a far-off goal.
4. Hamas’s Khaled Mashaal has set an ambitious objective for his new term, which is to transform his extremist Islamic movement which governs Gaza into a widely recognized, legitimate political force – without, however, paying for this recognition by recognizing Israel.
5. The US Secretary of State is also exploring a separate Jordanian-Palestinian-Israeli channel that would be sharply inconsistent with the Turkish-Qatari-Hamas track – that is if either of them ever got off the ground.
This channel envisages the creation of a federation between Jordan and the Palestinian West Bank that would in time broaden out into an Israeli-Jordanian-Palestinian confederation (a proposal which DEBKA-Net-Weekly and debkafile have cited several times in recent months) and so allay Saudi concerns.
Saudi Arabia and Qatar have been vying for control over the rebel movement in Syria. Now they are pitted against one another for influence over the Palestinians.
Secretary Kerry has a long way to go before he can make sense of this mishmash and fashion a coherent US policy for breaking the ice on the Palestinian issue.