By all accounts, Cairo hasn’t done a stellar job of negotiating an end to conflict between Hamas and Israel thus far. Last week’s cease-fire failed within hours, and a share of the blame has fallen on Egyptian President Abdel Fattah El Sisi for neglecting to inform Hamas of the agreement. Though Qatar hosted Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas and U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon on Sunday in their first effort toward mediation, Egypt has not given up hope of retaining its position. In fact, it has invited Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal to Cairo — on the condition that he accept its cease-fire proposal in advance.
U.S. leaders continue to push the Egyptian plan as well, though they should pressure Israel to accept Qatar as a mediator. Secretary of State John Kerry is close with Qatar’s foreign minister, Khaled al-Attiyeh, who can bring Hamas to the negotiating table. Egypt has done nothing but push Hamas away.
That Sisi is unfit to mediate should be plainly clear, given his history with Hamas and its parent organization, the Muslim Brotherhood. Hamas was established during the first intifada as a Palestinian wing of the Muslim Brotherhood — which it officially remains in the Hamas charter.
Sisi took power in Egypt after a military coup against the democratically elected Brotherhood. Since the Egyptian army seized control from Mohamed Morsi, it has conducted mass arrests of Muslim Brotherhood members and sentenced hundreds to death. (Whether those sentences will be carried out is questionable, but the trials were far from fair.) In May, Sisi famously said, “There will be nothing called the Muslim Brotherhood during my tenure,” and vowed to eradicate the group. It has been formally designated a terrorist group in Egypt and blamed for numerous attacks, including ones that were claimed by other groups, such as Ansar Beit al-Maqdis.
The crisis is worsening as a direct result of Sisi’s conduct, and there is no way to broker peace while excluding one party from the negotiating table.
Sisi’s animosity is not limited to the Egyptian branch of the Brotherhood. In January a senior Egyptian official told Reuters that after crushing the group at home, Egypt's military rulers plan to undermine Hamas. Their strategy includes working with Hamas’ political rival Fatah and supporting anti-Hamas activities in Gaza, according to four Egyptian security and diplomatic officials. One official was quoted as saying “Gaza is next … We cannot get liberated from the terrorism of the Brotherhood in Egypt without ending it in Gaza, which lies on our borders,” and “Their day will come.” The Muslim Brotherhood remains among Sisi’s most vocal opposition, believing that his removal of Morsi from Egypt’s presidency was illegal. Given the Brotherhood’s popularity, especially during and after the 2011 revolution, perhaps the new regime is right to worry.
This throws Sisi’s credibility into serious question, especially when viewed in tandem with his reluctance to include Hamas in negotiations in the current conflict. His actions lead to the international community’s perception that Hamas violated a cease-fire agreement, when Hamas never agreed to such an agreement in the first place. This perception is being used to justify expanded military action in the Gaza Strip, including the introduction of ground troops. The crisis is worsening as a direct result of Sisi’s conduct, and there is no way to broker peace while excluding one party from the negotiating table.
A seat at the table
Third-party peace brokers need to be objective or at least motivated by stability. Sisi is motivated primarily by crushing those he sees as existential threats to his administration. Qatar, on the other hand, has friendly relations with Hamas and is much more likely to endorse conditions that are favorable to the people of Gaza. Khaled Meshaal makes his home in the Qatari capital of Doha, and in 2012 former Emir Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani became the first head of state to visit Gaza in over a decade. Qatar stands to benefit politically if it can successfully broker a cease-fire, especially one that minimizes further sanctions on Gaza.
Hamas’ conditions for a cease-fire include provisions about lifting the blockade of Gaza and resuming salaries to the public employees who make up most of the Gazan workforce. These demands are understandable, given Gaza’s dire economic situation. Any potential mediator should take Hamas’ conditions seriously not only because Gaza is in a humanitarian crisis but also because failing to do so upholds a status quo that will likely lead to more conflict in the future. Hamas and the Gazan people must be shown carrots and not only sticks for any cease-fire to hold.
Though the idea is unpopular in Egypt and Israel, Hamas must be at the negotiating table and considered a legitimate partner for peace. This is a mistake Israel has made before, especially during the last Gaza incursion, in 2012. During that conflict, Israeli forces assassinated Hamas leader Ahmed al-Jabari. Jabari was no saint in his position as head of Hamas’ military wing, but at the time of his death, he was working to prevent Hamas rocket fire into Israel. Israel’s retributive attack may have removed a man with the legitimacy to accomplish what it so long sought. Potential mediators must learn from this experience and recognize partners for peace, no matter how politically unsavory they seem.
Qatar is certainly a better choice as a mediator than Egypt, but much work still needs to be done before it can broker a deal. The Gulf state has scheduled meetings between Abbas and Ban as well as Abbas and Meshaal, but there are no talks on the agenda that include Israel. Israel has been reluctant to deal with Qatar because of its relationship to Hamas, but Israel must look toward such a partnership rather than away from it.
The United States, Israel’s closest ally, can also play a part in bringing Israel to the talks. Kerry left early Monday morning for Cairo to push Hamas to accept Egypt’s cease-fire proposal. If the U.S. officially endorses Qatar as a mediator and accepts that Sisi’s bias makes him unfit for the position, the U.S. could pressure Israel to do the same. Of course dealing directly with Hamas is politically impossible for Benjamin Netanyahu, but if negotiations are performed through Qatar and Abbas, both parties could be appeased.
The right mediator can end this conflict and make it harder for others to arise. Such a mediator has to be open to dealing with Hamas and its conditions. Acting otherwise is unlikely to end the current violence, let alone prevent more. Qatar could be that mediator at a time when the Egyptian leadership is unwilling to deal honestly with both parties. It is time to recognize that and begin working in earnest toward a lasting peace.