Editor’s Note: This was originally published in “Critical Neighbors: Egypt, Jordan, and the Israeli-Palestinian Arena,” a collection of written analysis by members of an Israel Policy Forum task force offering four perspectives — Israeli, Palestinian, Jordanian and Egyptian — on recent events in Jerusalem. USIP’s Ambassador Hesham offers the Egyptian perspective.
The good news is that there are intensive regional and international efforts to avoid another Israeli-Palestinian war. The preventive effort has been extensive, and the United States seems to be carefully monitoring the situation. The bad news is the reconfirmation of what most already know: the Israeli-Palestinian status quo is volatile and not sustainable. The resulting successive wars only take us many steps further away from peace.
Egyptian efforts have been instrumental in ending almost all the Israel-Gaza wars. Egypt has been continuously monitoring the pulse in the occupied territories, particularly in Gaza, and coordinates closely with Amman and Ramallah on issues pertaining to East Jerusalem.
Egypt knows that Hamas has yet to recover fully from the repercussions of last year’s war in May 2021 and is not keen on facing another one; that the Palestinian Authority (PA) is facing an unprecedented legitimacy and financial crisis; that the Israeli government is fragile, on the verge of collapse, and wants to maintain calm but is constrained by extreme right-wing pressure; and finally, that the United States is preoccupied with what it perceives as more pressing priorities and is not dealing effectively with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. All these factors contributed to Egypt initiating a flurry of diplomatic efforts to avoid another war.
Averting Another Round of Violence
Like many countries in the region and beyond, Egypt condemned — and demanded an end to — the Israeli escalation in the Palestinian territories and continued incursions by Israelis in al-Aqsa Mosque under Israeli police protection. Stressing the importance of adhering to international law, Egypt called for the provision of due protection for Palestinian civilians, as well as for ending any practice that violates the sanctity of al-Aqsa Mosque and other religious sites or affects the identity of East Jerusalem.
The Egyptian president hosted a tripartite summit with Jordan’s King Abdallah and UAE’s Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Zayed. They stressed that their countries would spare no effort to restore calm in Jerusalem and stop all forms of escalation to enable worshipers to perform their religious practices without hindrances or harassment. They called on Israel to stop all measures that undermine the chances of achieving peace, to reach a political horizon and to return to serious and effective negotiations to resolve the Palestinian question on the basis of the two-state solution and in accordance with international law.
Egypt also participated in the emergency ministerial meeting hosted and chaired by Jordan with representatives from Algeria, Morocco, the PA, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Tunisia and the UAE that condemned the Israeli attacks in al-Haram al-Sharif. The parties warned that these actions represent a blatant provocation to Muslims and threaten to ignite a cycle of violence, and they expressed support for Jordan’s custodianship in administering holy sites. King Abdullah stressed the importance of observing the status quo at the Jerusalem holy sites.
However, Egypt was less vocal publicly, preferring to work in a more discreet manner behind closed doors compared to the PA and Jordan, who had sharp public exchanges with Israel.
Egypt conducted private talks with Hamas, including its leadership in Qatar, as well as with the PA and Israel. Egypt indicated to Hamas that the Israeli government is at its weakest and that if Hamas escalates, Israel will strongly attack in order to ensure its political survival and avoid criticism from the extreme right. Cairo expressed the fear that the fall of this government would lead to a more extreme right-wing one. Concurrently, Egypt is convinced that Hamas can calm things down and that violence would hamper the reconstruction of Gaza. Should this happen, the flow of construction materials would cease, and Egypt will not issue work permits for construction engineers.
Egypt’s advice to Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad to issue a joint statement indicating that they do not seek escalation was not heeded. They said that this depends on Israel’s actions in Jerusalem. Stressing that they had no intention to escalate, the two organizations argued that securing calm is up to the Israelis, but they were determined to thwart Israel’s perceived interest in separating Gaza from Jerusalem and the West Bank. Hamas further demanded that Israel allow complete freedom of worship in al-Haram al-Sharif and stop military actions in the Jenin refugee camp. Publicly, both stressed that they had not committed to de-escalate.
Amid rising tensions, Israel again asked Egypt to pressure Palestinian groups in Gaza to avoid escalation. At the same time, Israeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz threatened that “if they release the gunlock, Israel will come crashing down on them.” Israel said its military was prepared for any eventuality, including attacks from Lebanon and Syria, as well as from Gaza. It was in that context that Egypt asked Israel to release over 400 Palestinians who were arrested during clashes at al-Haram al-Sharif.
All of this followed Egypt hosting an unprecedented tripartite summit (March 2022) with Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and UAE Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed, only a few months after the Israeli prime minister visited Egypt. Both summits reflected a new chapter in Egyptian-Israeli relations. Likewise, Egypt participated in the Negev Summit (also in March 2022), convened by Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid and featuring his American, Emirati, Bahraini, Moroccan and Egyptian counterparts. During all these meetings, participants expressed concern that last year’s violence could erupt again due to tensions surrounding Jerusalem holy sites and Palestinian neighborhoods. More recently, the United States sent a senior delegation to Israel, Ramallah, Egypt and Jordan to de-escalate the situation. The visiting diplomats indicated that the United States expressed “the need for all parties to call and work for calm, especially in Jerusalem, and our mutual commitment to a two-state solution.”
Many lessons can be drawn from previous tensions leading to violence. The 11-day war of May 2021 was particularly instructive. It demonstrated that a match lit in Jerusalem can ignite fire far beyond. More broadly, it was a reminder that such matches are scattered way beyond Jerusalem. All this leads to one overarching conclusion: much as the issue of the status quo regarding Jerusalem’s holiest site cannot be ignored, so too can’t the Palestinian question be bypassed. Rhetorical commitment to the status quo, much like to the two-state solution, must be backed by action. This lesson applies to the U.S. discourse and conduct as much as to anyone else’s. As demonstrated time and again, including in May 2021 and April 2022, looking the other way is not an option. On both these recent occasions, nothing short of U.S. presidential intervention proved sufficient. If Washington wishes to free the president of such burdens, it must empower its diplomats to tend to the Israeli-Palestinian arena in a more robust and regular manner, with a view to reaching understandings on a political horizon or end game definition. Egypt and Jordan are ready and willing to assist in this important undertaking, however long and demanding it is likely to prove.