Sisi and Mideast Peace

Egyptian President Abdel Fatah al-Sisi’s speech on Tuesday, May 18, set ripples through Israel’s political establishment. Speaking in the southern city of Assiut, Sisi signaled to the Arab world, the Palestinians, and Israel that it is time for an historic breakthrough in peace negotiations.

Responding immediately to Sisi’s comments, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu stated that he is open to working with Egypt and Arab states towards advancing the peace process, not only with the Palestinians but with the peoples of the Middle East region.

Netanyahu’s comments come on the heels of a visit to Israel by French Foreign Minister Jean-Mark Ayrault. The two men met but disagreed on how to advance peace.

France insists on hosting an international parley to force Israel and the Palestinians to come to the peace table. Israel is against the French initiative.

Netanyahu would like to go beyond the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and work directly with moderate Arab states on a comprehensive peace deal. Sisi could be instrumental in building an Arab coalition for peace which would dismiss or weaken the divisive French initiative, releasing Israel from conceding to European demands.

Former Israeli ambassador to Egypt, Zvi Mazel, is currently working as a Research Fellow at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs (JCPA). He is a Middle East expert who has represented Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs as former Ambassador to Sweden and Romania, as well. This writer asked Mazel if Sisi’s comments were spontaneous or were released at this time for political reasons because he wants to strengthen Egypt’s position in the region by helping Israel.

“I don’t think there is a big design… I think that Sisi understands what is going on in the Middle East and he is identifying according to his view -- a kind of possibility of advancing the peace process.”

Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the Gulf countries, and Israel have common enemies: Iran and Islamic State. Already there have been discreet diplomatic and business ties between Israel and these nations

According to Mazel, Sisi is also emerging as a strong respected leader among Egyptians despite the Western media’s portrayal of him as a dictator similar to former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. 

“Sisi sees himself as a president quite stable among his people. I know that this is not the way they think in the Western media -- New York Times and company. They see him as a kind of military dictator; absolutely not! He’s a good man. He’s not Mubarak. He’s Sisi.”

Mazel explains that Egypt is on the way to economic sustainable development. This is what Sisi has been focused on over the past two years and he is seeing success. Unemployment has gone down, despite the fact that almost 90 million people live in Egypt and the country is poor.

“He has started something quite positive, and Sisi thinks that the time has come for Egypt to be in the international arena.”

What that means, according to Mazel, is that Egypt’s current role is still minor. Sisi is asking Israelis and Palestinians to go forward, yet he, himself, does not have a plan. But, in the future, Egypt could emerge as a larger player in the region.

Mazel is pragmatic about the short-term. “It’s a positive step for Egypt, but it is not going to change the world.”

Current peace advances that are being prepared for release are not a positive development for Israel: (a) the French Initiative; (b) a document showing the obstacles to Israeli-Palestinian peace efforts soon to be reported by the Quartet; (c) the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative that, despite being outdated, is still considered a serious option by the Arab world.

In the coming days, the Arab League plans to meet and discuss the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Mazel thinks that Sisi’s statement was good timing for that meeting, but otherwise, was not connected to a bigger scheme.

However, on Wednesday, May 18, American Secretary of State John Kerry arrived in Egypt one day after Sisi gave his emotional speech. Some analysts believe that the U.S. is behind Sisi’s bold words, in an effort to circumvent the French from becoming a new power broker in the Middle East.

The question is whether Sisi’s encouragement will lead to Israel courting the Arab nations and the Arab nations courting Israel, while by-passing the Palestinians. Mazel thinks that kind of change is slow in coming, because the Arabs continue to entrench themselves in old positions that favor Palestinian demands.

Refusing to sit down and negotiate with Israel, the Palestinians have insisted on preconditions which the Arab League has accepted. They demand that Israel agree on the right of return for so-called Palestinian “refugees” to Israeli land; that Israel withdraw to the 1967 borders; and, that Israel stop building in West Bank settlements (Judea and Samaria). Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas also expects Israel to release hundreds of Palestinian prisoners, who have blood on their hands, serving time in Israeli jails because of terrorist attacks against the Israeli population.

So far, these unresolved issues have kept Abbas away from face-to-face negotiations with Netanyahu. However, his real diplomatic scheme is to get the international community to affirm the Palestinian position and force Israel to concede to Palestinian demands. Right now, Abbas sees the best venue to accomplish his goal as a French-sponsored future peace conference, followed by a stinging UN anti-Israel resolution.

Meanwhile, the future pressure on Israel will be to immediately stop settlement construction in order to get the peace process going. Mazel declares, “Absolutely not… we have to go on! Half a million people live there. And, they are the shield of Israel. We continue to build until there is peace.”

Mazel has a real problem with the demands of the Arab League, as well. “The Arab Peace Initiative is more or less the same as the Palestinian attitude. The ‘right of return’ is still there. It should be taken completely out. Most importantly, the Palestinians and the Arabs should recognize a Jewish State in Israel.”

Mazel is also not sure that Netanyahu’s insistence on widening his government, to provide greater stability, is a wise idea. Reportedly, Yisrael Beytenu Chairman Avigdor Liberman will soon become Israel’s new Defense Minister as Netanyahu brings several more ministers into his coalition. Mazel thinks this will not provide a wider diplomatic envelope; nor, will it help change European or Arab attitudes towards Israel; nor will it end the Boycott-Divestment-Sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel. 

Then there is U.S. President Barack Obama’s failed Middle East policy, which includes his lackluster support of American allies in the region. Mazel says this policy cannot continue.

“It cannot be like that, because America is the most important power in the world… And, whoever will win the presidency, whether it will be Mrs. Clinton or Trump, both of them are in a certain way connected to the Middle East.”

Mazel believes that with 22 countries and more than 300 million people living in the region, the next U.S. president will be more engaged in leading the nations into greater stability.

In the meantime, currently 80% of the Egyptian people support Egyptian President Sisi. His nation has already made peace with Israel (along with Jordan). Helping Israel to extend an olive branch to other Arab countries will encourage Egypt to take up an important leadership role in a region that continues to be embroiled in major upheaval and violence.