Is Egypt the right country to broker peace between Israel and the Palestinian Authority?

Egypt's success will hinge on its ability to convince Israel and the Palestinians to concede to previous sticking points that have historically stalled talks. 

Bebeto Matthews/AP
Egypt’s Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry, May 2016. Mr. Shoukry will meet with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Tel Aviv Sunday in an effort to start peace negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority.

In an effort to revive stalled peace efforts between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, Egypt’s foreign minister will travel to Israel for the first time in nine years.

Sameh Shoukry, visiting Israel on behalf of President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, is set to meet with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu twice on Sunday, Mr. Netanyahu announced in Jerusalem earlier in the day. Mr. Shoukry’s visit comes after he already met with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas on June 29 in Ramallah, the de facto administrative capital of the Palestinian National Authority (PA), and after Mr. Sisi urged Israel in May in an impromptu speech to resume the mired negotiations.  

Shoukry’s meeting with Mr. Abbas and Netanyahu cements Egypt’s role as a central player in any upcoming Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. France, the United States, and others in the West have floundered in their efforts at peacemaking in the Middle East. As a peace broker, Egypt would have an advantage in that it is able to speak for a majority of Arab states. Yet, Egypt’s success will hinge on its ability to convince the two administrations to concede to past sticking points.

Shoukry is acting on Sisi’s wish to be a mediator between Israel and the PA. In Sisi’s impromptu and unusual foreign policy speech in May, he said “we will achieve a warmer peace if we resolve the issue of our Palestinian brothers,” and he asked the Israeli leadership to broadcast his words throughout its country. “We are willing to make all efforts to help find a solution to this problem,” said Sisi.

Netanyahu and a member of the Palestine Liberation Organization Executive Committee, Wasel Abu Yousef, each welcomed future peace efforts by Egypt and other Arab states, according to Reuters.

The warm response shared by the two sides contrasts their receptions to Western efforts to bring about peace, starting in the British Mandate Period, as The Christian Science Monitor’s Lucy Schouten reported June 3. US Secretary of State John Kerry was the last American to falter in the 2013-14 Israeli-Palestinian peace talks. France organized a peace conference that met in June, though Netanyahu rejected the French initiative, and neither Israel nor the PA were invited to the conference’s meeting in Paris.

Egypt, by contrast, is a unique friend, particularly of Israel. Egypt was the first of a handful of Arab states to recognize Israel in a US-sponsored peace accord in 1979. Though many Egyptians are opposed to their eastern neighbor due to what many Arabs see as the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and east Jerusalem, Sisi has become a discreet ally of Israel, according to the Associated Press. Israel often praises Sisi for his stance against militants, and considers him an ally against Islamic extremists. It is believed Israel and Egypt share intelligence to combat Hamas in the Gaza Strip and the self-declared Islamic State’s militants in Egypt’s Sinai desert.

Ultimately, however, Egypt’s success to broker peace will hinge on its ability to convince Israel and the PA to concede more than they were willing to in the past. The Egyptian Foreign Ministry said in a statement peace should involve the creation of an independent Palestinian state on 1967 borders (before Israel captured the West Bank and Golan Heights in the Six-Day War), with East Jerusalem as the capital of the Palestinian state. The statement did not mention the return of Palestinian refugees in exile.

The establishment of such a Palestinian state conflicts with Israeli actions in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. A week ago, the government approved the construction of 800 housing units in the West Bank settlement of Ma’ale Adumim and in settlements in East Jerusalem. Netanyahu and other leaders on the Israeli right have insisted Israeli soldiers remain in the Jordan Valley in the West Bank to foil any attack on Israel from the east. Israel, in general, has demanded tighter security measures from the PA. 

Of course, there’s the question of the about 5 million Palestinian refugees who live outside of Israel, the West Bank, and the Gaza Strip. The population of Israel, the West Bank, and the Gaza Strip is just over 12 million, with the number of Jews roughly equal to the number of Palestinians (each around 6.3 million).

When Shoukry visited Ramallah, Wafa, the PA's official news agency, reported that Shoukry said Egypt opposes any changes to the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative. The initiative is a ten-sentence proposal for Israel to withdraw from any land it captured in the Six-Day War, to find a solution for Palestinian refugees, and accept the establishment of a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, with East Jerusalem as its capital. In return, 22 Arab states would sign a peace agreement with Israel and establish normal diplomatic relations with the country.

Earlier in June, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Israel would be interested in an altered draft of the initiative.

According to the Palestinian news outlet Ma’an, Egyptian sources said Shoukry’s visit to Israel may be in preparation for Netanyahu to visit Cairo to meet with Sisi. The Israeli Foreign Ministry refused to comment on any upcoming trip.

This report contains material from Reuters.

[Editor's note: An earlier version of this story misstated the locale of the meetings between Shoukry and Netanyahu. They took place in Jerusalem.]

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