Egypt, Saudi Arabia less optimistic of Trump’s ‘Deal of Century' to bring Middle East peace
Large crowds of Palestinians protested on the Gaza-Israel border on Friday. Video footage shows huge plumes of black smoke rising from burning tIres. (Aug. 10)
CAIRO – Even as the White House moves to unveil its’ “Deal of the Century” vision for Middle East peace, it’s increasingly clear that Arab enthusiasm to partner with President Donald Trump on a Palestinian-Israeli peace agreement is faltering.
The central thrust of the plan – which Arab leaders have reportedly asked the Trump administration to withhold – is to focus first on an economic development program for Gaza with similar incentives applying to the West Bank only if Palestinians concede permanent control over Jerusalem with large settlement zones for Israelis and a limited sovereignty arrangement that is several steps short of full independence.
But after a year of shuttle diplomacy and multiple meetings with leaders in Abu Dhabi, Riyadh, Amman and Cairo, American envoys Jared Kushner and Jason Greenblatt have failed to convince Egypt or other key Arab states that the U.S. can broker a fair solution.
“Most of the Arab world – including Egypt and Saudi Arabia – have rejected the U.S.-proposed Deal of the Century,” said Saad El Gammal, head of the Egyptian parliament's Arab Affairs Committee.
El Gamal and other critics of the emerging deal say detailed planning for a free trade zone or building power and desalination plants in Gaza before tackling the political questions of Jerusalem, borders and refugees is sidestepping core Arab concerns.
“Trump’s claims of ongoing support to the peace process are entirely false,” El Gammal said, pointing to the administration’s move of the U.S Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem in May and American efforts this summer to shut down UNRWA – the UN refugee agency assisting Palestinians in Gaza, the West Bank and Jordan.
The refugee quandary emerged again last week amid reports Kushner proposed that the more than 2 million registered Palestinians living in Jordan no longer be listed as “refugees,” a word that implies a right to return to land inside Israel.
It’s a disappointing turnaround for Arabs who remember the May 2017 photo op in the Saudi capital Riyadh, where President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi of Egypt, King Salman of Saudi Arabia and President Trump jointly grasped an illuminated globe at an anti-terrorism summit.
President El Sisi had particularly high hopes to co-broker a Middle East solution with the Americans, securing a good relationship with Trump and reaping economic benefits from a new arrangement in the region that would place Egypt at the center of a regional energy hub and attract international – especially Saudi – investment.
“Working together we can find a solution to the problem of the century in the deal of the century,” Sisi told Trump in an April 2017 White House summit.
But peace seems as elusive as ever.
Over the weekend, two Palestinians were killed by Israeli fire and another 60 were injured at a protest along the Gaza border amid ongoing Egyptian efforts to broker a cease-fire.
Israel has faced a summer long assault from Gazans with incendiary kites and balloons burning fields in farms bordering the Palestinian enclave that is also adjacent to the Egyptian-controlled Sinai.
“The continued escalation against unarmed civilians in the Gaza Strip and the tension it causes has dangerous implications for regional security and stability," Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry said after an Aug. 7 meeting with Greenblatt, a lawyer with 20 years of service in the Trump Organization – and no prior diplomatic experience. “The basic living needs of Palestinian refugees cannot be separated from any concept of a lasting, fair and comprehensive solution.”
Shoukry’s sentiments are echoed in Jordan where UNRWA provides direct assistance to 1.1 million Palestinians in 10 refugee camps whose population includes those who fled in the 1948 War that created Israel.
“The right of return of Palestinian refugees and the status of Jerusalem and its holy sites, these are red lines for all of us,” said Sadah Habashneh, a member of parliament from the southern Jordanian city of Karak. “It is impossible for Jordan to be party to such an agreement, as it will be the most harmed by the so-called ultimate deal.”
In July, the U.S. State Department released nearly $200 million of military aid for Egypt withheld previously over human rights concerns, a move that has tempered the official critique in Cairo of the Kushner-Greenblatt plan.
“Our policy regarding the Deal of the Century is clear,” El Sisi said in a July 29 speech at Cairo University. “We say (Israel should pull back to) the pre-1967 borders, and a Palestinian state should be established with East Jerusalem as its capital, and I just want to tell you that we are quietly playing this (peacemaker) role with the parties on that issue.”
But reluctance to accept Egyptian efforts to mediate a truce between the nationalist PLO administration in the West Bank and Hamas – the Islamist faction – is an ongoing source of frustration for Cairo, where security officials have tried to support a return of the Palestinian Authority to Gaza.
Egypt has failed to bring the different Palestinian factions together in a series of “reconciliation talks” since Deal of the Century plans first emerged after Trump’s election.
“It’s obvious that what the U.S. and Israel mean by reconciliation is not what Egypt means,” said Mohamed Gomaa, a researcher specializing in Palestinian affairs at Al Ahram Center, a Cairo think tank close to the El Sisi administration. “Israel wants to see the Palestinian center of gravity move to the Gaza Strip and establish a long-term functional sharing of the West Bank. But Egypt wants a Palestinian national unity government operating between the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.”
Meanwhile, this month the National Security Council began canvassing the State Department and other U.S. government agencies seeking volunteers to join the Kushner- Greenblatt Mideast peace team as they move to publicly announce details of their plan already shared with Arab leaders.
But these efforts are not going to raise the dim view of the “deal” that pervades the hookah cafes and television talk shows regionwide.
“So far, no one has come out to tell us the full details,” said Ahmed Abdeen, a 31-year-old Cairo political commentator and frequent guest on the Al Araby TV satellite channel. “But it looks like a quasi-state for the Palestinians that legalizes the Israeli occupation.”
“I do not think that the U.S. position today can be called mediation since mediation means neutrality to help reach a solution," he added. "America under Trump's administration has adopted the Israeli position completely."
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