Cairo was in a unique position this quarter at the nexus of otherwise marginally related trends. On the one hand, Pres. Abdel Fattah al-Sisi was working with Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Bahrain to boycott Qatar over its alleged support for so-called terrorist groups, including Hamas (see “Regional Affairs” below). On the other hand, al-Sisi saw an opportunity to advance his regional agenda in a new round of negotiations with the group.
As the quarter opened, Pres. Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s govt. supported the PA’s diplomatic initiatives within international institutions, but its relations with both Israel and Hamas remained strained.
In the context of an unstable situation in Sinai and the lack of progress on Palestinian national reconciliation, which al-Sisi has long upheld as a prerequisite for more frequent openings of the Rafah border crossing, the Egyptian govt. closed the crossing for all but 2 days (5/11–12) of the quarter. Of 30,000 Palestinian applicants, only 739 were able to exit Gaza for Egypt and 1,220 were able to enter. This marked the longest closure since 2007 and inevitably worsened Gaza’s already precarious humanitarian status, thus intensifying pressures on the Hamas-run govt. and, in turn, heightening the tension between Egypt and Hamas.
Egypt’s interior min. Magdy Abdel Ghaffar alleged (3/6) that Hamas had enjoyed “close coordination” with Muslim Brotherhood (MB) activists before they assassinated Egypt’s public prosecutor on 6/29/2015, an accusation that further inflamed tensions between al-Sisi’s fledgling govt. and the MB. Hamas immediately denied any such involvement (3/6), with a spokesperson countering that the “false” connection between Hamas and the MB was meant to undermine Hamas and reflected “internal Egyptian disputes.”
It was in this context that Hamas leaders sent a delegation to Cairo (3/12–15) for talks on improving bilateral relations. Although Egyptian security officials said (3/15) no meaningful progress was made, Hamas’s leadership continued their efforts. In a direct appeal to al-Sisi, whose differences with the MB remained significant (Asharq al-Awsat, 3/21), Hamas reportedly ordered the removal from Gazan streets and mosques of portraits of senior MB officials. In a 2d round of talks (3/27), when relations had “improved noticeably” according to Egyptian commentators (4/11), Hamas reps. reportedly pledged to secure Gaza’s border with Egypt and advance Palestinian national reconciliation with the PA (see “Intra-Palestinian Dynamics” above) while the Egyptians agreed to start talks with the PA with a view to the permanent reopening of the Rafah crossing under PASF control (Hamas had agreed to this in talks with PA officials last quarter; see JPS 45 ). By the end of the quarter, Hamas had taken steps to implement the new measures establishing (4/14) 3 new bases and a number of temporary structures along Gaza’s s. border and redeploying (4/21) and beefing up (4/22) border patrols. Apart from the opening of the Rafah crossing for 2 days in early 5/2016, however, it was unclear that these steps had any effect on the well-being of Gaza residents.
Although the Israeli and Egyptian govts. continued to cooperate on security coordination between them during the quarter, 2 minor economic and diplomatic incidents blocked progress. Early in the quarter, Egyptian MP Tawfik Okasha invited Israeli amb. to Egypt Haim Koren to his home where the 2 officials had wide-ranging discussions (2/23) on culture, economics, communications, society, and politics. The invitation reportedly surprised Koren, who had been largely ignored by the Egyptian parliament ever since being credentialed in 9/2014 (see JPS 44 ), and it incensed many of Okasha’s colleagues. Fellow MP Kamal Ahmed threw (2/28) a shoe at Okasha during a legislative session and both men were then expelled from the plenum. In an attempt to de-escalate tensions, the Israel Football Association invited the Egyptian Football Association (EFA) to play a friendly match to “break the barriers between the 2 countries and to [foster] a peaceful atmosphere.” The EFA declined (2/29) however, and then 465 of 595 MPs voted (3/2) to remove Okasha from Parliament permanently on the grounds that he had damaged Egypt’s relations with its neighbors and violated the legislature’s opposition to normalization of relations with Israel. In a related development, Israel’s Supreme Court suspended (3/27) the Israeli govt.’s agreement with the consortium of companies—Noble Energy and the Delek Group—contracted to develop the offshore Leviathan natural gas field. The suspension complicated the consortium’s agreement to supply natural gas to Egypt’s Dolphinus Holdings (see JPS 45 ), and cast doubt over energy and economic ties between Israel and Egypt.
These minor controversies were overshadowed by Egyptian-Israeli coordination in the context of a broader regional realignment (see “Regional Affairs” below). While Saudi king Salman bin Abdulaziz was in Cairo negotiating and signing deals worth over $24 b., including 1 to set up a “free-trade zone” in Sinai, the Egyptian govt. announced (4/9) that it was ceding control of 2 uninhabited Red Sea islands to Saudi Arabia. Although the cabinet depicted this concession as a transfer back to Saudi Arabia, there was a public outcry in the country. Since Egypt guaranteed Israel unfettered access to Red Sea shipping lanes as a part of the 1979 peace treaty, the handover of the islands threw into doubt Israel’s relationship with the new Saudi-led Sunni axis opposing Iran. Uncertainties subsided on 4/12, however, when Israeli DM Ya’alon said that Saudi Arabia had pledged, in a written document, to respect the relevant provisions of the 1979 treaty and that Israel had approved of the island swap beforehand.