The only certain thing about last Sunday’s Gaza Reconstruction Conference is that it has acknowledged, on a global basis, not just the legitimacy of President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi but also his re-assertion of a great regional role for Egypt since the passing of Gamal Abdel Nasser some 45 years ago.
Little more than a year after deposing a Muslim Brotherhood dominated government and becoming the subject of denunciation ranging from Muslim Brotherhood havens to the more nuanced expressions of pointed criticism and parental- sounding disapproval from a U.S. government, it was Sisi who hosted and opened this conference. The conference brought together in Cairo the representatives of 50 countries committed to contributing to the reconstruction of a devastated Gaza. Ultimately, they pledged to give $5.3 billion dollars.
It happened because Sisi, with firm support from both the Palestine Authority - which now speak in the name of a united Palestinian government - and from Israel, had already played the central role in formulating and then securing a cease-fire between Israel and Hamas. This was despite a short-lived and quite unsuccessful effort by Qatar to displace Egypt as the mediator.
Qatar would in time begin to hedge its bet on the Muslim Brotherhood; the new Amir congratulated Sisi upon his election as president early last summer and then, under pressure from its Gulf neighbors, it encouraged leading Egyptian Brotherhood figures enjoying their exile in Doha to leave the country. But that great thorn in the side of Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Egypt, Sheikh Yusef al-Qaradawi remained in Qatar and continued to be broadcast via al-Jazeera.
As for Turkey’s President Erdogan, he has been relentless in carrying on the attack. Nevertheless, both Qatar and Turkey were present in Cairo with Qatar pledging to give to the Palestine Authority $1 billion and Turkey pledging to give $200 million for the reconstruction of Gaza which is to supervised by the Palestine Authority. It seems that this is effectively a further humiliation for the two countries that have until now been the most forthcoming in support of Hamas and indifferent if not openly hostile to Palestinian President Mahmud Abbas.
Whatever the uncertain eventualities of Gaza’s future may be, immediate relief in the form of restoring electric power and drinking water is unavoidableAbdallah Schleifer
Sisi’s role at the conference capped his very successful appearance only a month ago in New York where he first addressed - on behalf of all the Arab states - a Climate Change summit at the U.N. that preceded the General Assembly meeting. He was warmly applauded again when he spoke on behalf of Egypt at the opening session of the General Assembly.
What is far less certain is why so many countries are pledging to donate so much to the reconstruction of Gaza when the only condition that can guarantee that this reconstruction exercise will not end up in ashes and debris is a comprehensive Palestinian-Israeli peace settlement that results in the immediate establishment of a Palestinian state in the occupied or besieged territories of the West Bank and Gaza.
Hamas no longer officially governs Gaza, that is now theoretically the remit of the new Palestinian unity government with its cabinet of technocrats. PA security forces are to take over from Hamas the Gazan presence at reopened border crossing points between Israel and Gaza and Egypt and Gaza.
But the question marks are greater than the accomplishments. What happens to the Qassem Brigades – the military arm of Hamas? They are already on record as saying that they will not disarm. Will they obey what one would assume would be the ultimate command by the unity government, for the Brigades to disarm and/or enter the PA? If the Qassem Brigades refuse, can the existing PA security force, if ferried into Gaza from the West Bank, impose its will upon the combat seasoned veterans of Hamas? The only combat experience the PA security force has had is breaking up anti-PA demonstrations in parts of the West Bank.
Of course, whatever the uncertain eventualities of Gaza’s future may be, immediate relief in the form of restoring electric power and drinking water and rehabilitating or even reconstructing damaged or destroyed hospitals is unavoidable. But what about rebuilding anything else, given the present uncertainty which could result in another war? Only Sisi appears to have made public note of this question when he declared that reconstruction can only take place in an atmosphere of “permanent calm.”
It would seem from past experience that only a Palestinian-Israeli peace settlement - in the context of a two-state solution - can guarantee permanent calm. With Netanyahu insisting on new conditions that effectively undermine any two-state solution, not to mention presence in his cabinet of a significant number of ministers who openly reject two-states and are pledged to an ever-expanding Israeli settlement in the occupied territories, what hope is there for peace?
The only hope is that those Israeli parties participating in Netanyahu’s coalition who do seriously worry about the increasing isolation of Israel, and the possibility of a serious economic impact as a result of that isolation, would quit the cabinet and force a new election for the Knesset and win that election. That is the least certain of all possibilities.
Abdallah Schleifer is a veteran American journalist covering the Middle East and professor emeritus at the American University in Cairo where he founded as served as first director of the Kamal Adham Center for TV and Digital Journalism. He is chief editor of the annual publication The Muslim 500; a senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute (USA) and at the Royal Aal al Bayt Academy for Islamic Thought (Jordan.) Schleifer has served as Al Arabiya Washington D.C. bureau chief; NBC News Cairo bureau chief; Middle East correspondent for Jeune Afrique; as special correspondent (stringer) , New York Times and managing editor of the Jerusalem Star/Palestine News in then Jordanian Arab Jerusalem.