The departure of Hosni Mubarak generates fear in Western capitals, and for good reasons. Egypt has been a steadfast ally of the West for decades, as it maintained peace with Israel and worked against Iranian influence in the region. Many Western leaders are frightened to realize that all this may evaporate if anti-Western forces, including the Muslim Brotherhood, gain power in a new government. But a new reality in Egypt may also present opportunities for peacemaking in the region that would have been unthinkable only weeks ago. One of these opportunities is to return Gaza to Egyptian control.
Egypt controlled the Gaza Strip in 1948, but lost it to Israel during the Six-Day War in 1967. While Egypt and Israel ultimately made peace in 1979, Gaza’s fate remained unresolved, to the detriment of Israel and the Gazan people. The consensus view among parties trying to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian dispute has been that Gaza must be part of a future Palestinian state, along with the West Bank. However, this consensus view makes little sense.
Gaza and the West Bank are not contiguous territories. And Gaza is controlled by Hamas, a radical Islamic movement opposed to peace with Israel, while the West Bank is controlled by the secular, moderate Palestinian Authority. Making peace between Israel and Palestine would be easier to accomplish if the only territory in dispute was the West Bank. In addition, while many Gazans view themselves as Palestinians, in many ways, they are more culturally and economically connected to Egypt than the West Bank. Increasing these ties could benefit Gazans and move the region closer to peace.
A new Egypt is ripe for returning Gaza
But the idea of returning Gaza to Egyptian control has always been rejected out of hand, mainly by Egypt itself. The rationale for this has always been that Mubarak’s regime would be threatened because the radicalism from Gaza would strengthen the Muslim Brotherhood movement in Egypt. However, this rationale might not apply in a post-Mubarak Egypt, especially one in which the Muslim Brotherhood played a role.
Returning Gaza to Egyptian control could allow political and cultural influence to flow north instead of south. Specifically, a Muslim Brotherhood with relatively moderate positions necessary for competing in national elections could have a constructive influence on Hamas. Finally, a pluralistic Egypt may be more willing to accept the return of Gaza, and the people of Gaza may similarly be more inclined to accept some form of Egyptian control if they had allies in its government.
Of course, returning Gaza to Egyptian control would present serious challenges as well. A new Egyptian government may not be inclined to do Israel any favors, and it may not want the added responsibility of controlling this volatile territory. Israel also will likely be reluctant to accept an Egyptian presence so close to its main population centers, especially if it is concerned about the new government’s allegiances. And the Palestinian Authority and Arab League would have to be persuaded as well. All this will be difficult because it goes strongly against the conventional wisdom that informed all peace negotiations to date.
In this light, the notion of returning Gaza to an Egypt that might ally with Islamists may seem ludicrous. But it actually makes more sense than continuing to push for a noncontiguous Palestinian state. Also, Hamas will probably prove to be a headache for the new Egyptian government and Israel regardless. Returning Gaza to Egyptian control could help keep calm on the border between Hamas and Israel, and limit Iran’s ability to import weapons and extremism into Gaza.
Challenges aren't insurmountable
Furthermore, none of the potential problems are insurmountable. The West could provide substantial financial aid and logistical support for a new Egyptian government as it assumes control of Gaza. The process could provide a context for the United States to develop positive diplomatic relations in a new Middle East. And all parties involved could sell the change to their peoples as a strategic and humanitarian success. This may provide a particularly valuable legitimacy boost to a new Egyptian government.
Egyptian control would not necessarily mean the obliteration of Gaza’s Palestinian identity, as self-rule could be allowed, and Gaza could still pursue the “right of return” of refugees to Israel. While Israel may not be inclined to relinquish its claims to Gaza without any agreement on the “right of return,” in a sense it already did so by unilaterally disengaging from its Gaza settlements in 2005, getting nothing in return but persistent rocket attacks. Egyptian control over Gaza could offer Israel additional security, and at the same time provide Gazans with a legitimate foreign backer that they have needed and lacked for some time.
Even if Egypt does not assume control of Gaza, there are other ways it could be more active in Gazan affairs and regional issues. For example, Egypt could take an expanded role in the work being done by the Middle East Desalination Research Center, which has involved Gazans, Jordanians, and West Bank Palestinians in efforts to improve water management in cooperation with Israel. Hamas may be more comfortable working with a new Egyptian government on regional issues, and Egypt could be given a valuable role as an honest broker between Hamas and Israel, a role that Mubarak was unable to fulfill.
The Obama administration and other Western governments will soon be searching desperately for some way to engage with a new Egyptian government and ensure the survival of the Egypt-Israel peace treaty. Arranging for the return of Gaza to Egyptian control may present just such an opportunity, and could help bring much needed peace to the region.
Dashiell Shapiro is a tax lawyer who has worked in the Middle East.