When the Egyptian government reached out to Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas recently, one surprising and one predictable thing happened. The tale of this offer and its rejection tells us all we need to know about Palestinian politics and the changing political landscape of the Middle East.
The Palestinian Ma’an News Agency reported today that in a speech given to members of his Fatah Party on Sunday, Abbas said that the Egyptian government had made a startling offer to the PA. The Egyptians told Abbas that they were willing to cede a 618-square mile area of the Sinai adjacent to Gaza for resettlement of the Palestinian refugees, an idea first floated by former Israeli National Security Adviser Giora Eiland.
“They [the Egyptians] are prepared to receive all the refugees, [saying] ‘let’s end the refugee story’,” Abbas was quoted by Ma’an news agency as saying.
The Palestinian leader noted that the idea was first proposed to the Egyptian government in 1956, but was furiously rejected by Palestinian leaders such as PLO militant Muhammad Youssef Al-Najjar and poet Muin Bseiso who “understood the danger of this.”
“Now this is being proposed once again. A senior leader in Egypt said: ‘a refuge must be found for the Palestinians and we have all this open land.’ This was said to me personally. But it’s illogical for the problem to be solved at Egypt’s expense. We won’t have it,” Abbas said.
The remarkable thing about this is the decision of the Sisi government to embrace such a practical solution to the long, sad tale of the 1948 Palestinian refugees and their descendants. Like the rest of the Arab world, the Egyptians were never interested in resettling the refugees anywhere, let alone on a huge swath of the Sinai next door to Gaza. Not even during the 19 years during which Egypt illegally occupied Gaza and Jordan illegally occupied the West Bank and part of Jerusalem did either nation seek to ameliorate the suffering of the refugees by offering them the full rights of citizenship or a home anywhere but in the State of Israel. The same applies to every other Arab and Muslim country. All stuck by the demand of a “right of return” aimed at destroying the newborn Jewish state which was at that time absorbing an equal number of Jewish refugees that had fled or been thrown out of their homes in the Arab and Muslim world. Israel’s enemies purposely kept the Palestinian refugees in order to use them as props in their never-ending war on Israel.
Egypt’s offer was, of course, not merely aimed at finally doing the right thing by the refugees. The Hamas stronghold in Gaza is a threat to the Egyptian military government in Cairo because of its alliance with the Muslim Brotherhood. They also recognize how toxic the situation in Gaza—where hundreds of thousands of the descendants of the refugees live—and the need to get these people out of a bad situation that is only made worse by their exploitation by the Hamas terrorist government of the strip.
Resettling the refugees could be the first step in neutralizing Hamas as well as in reforming the political culture of the Palestinians to the point where it might be possible for them to start thinking about making peace instead of sticking to demands for a return to Israel. That is something that could only happen after the demands in Hamas’s charter are fulfilled: the destruction of the Jewish state and the deportation/genocide of its Jewish population.
But in making this proposal, Egypt, which was the first Arab country to make peace with Israel, wasn’t just seeking to deal with the threat from Hamas and its jihadist allies to the Sisi regime. It was making clear that the new unofficial alliance between Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Jordan and Israel isn’t mere talk. These Arab countries haven’t suddenly fallen in love with Zionism. The Jewish state is very unpopular even in Jordan, which has a peace treaty with it and also signed an agreement to import Israeli natural gas this week. But all these moderate Arab governments understand that the real threat to their future comes not from Israel but from Iran and its Islamist allies in the Middle East, such as Hezbollah, Hamas, and Islamic Jihad.
PA leader Mahmoud Abbas is nominally in the same boat as these governments since he knows that Hamas’s goal is to topple him in the West Bank just as they did in Gaza in 2007. He also has an interest in defusing the Gaza tinderbox and offering some alternative to the “right of return” to a refugee population whose adamant opposition to peace with Israel is one of the primary reasons why the PA has rejected offers of statehood and peace with Israel over the last 15 years.
If Abbas is serious about peace with Israel, as his apologists in the West and in Israel insist he is, this is an offer that he should have jumped at. But he didn’t, and from the sound of it, it was not even a close call. Why?
Let’s first dismiss the idea that the offer was refused out of solicitude for Egypt as Abbas said. As Egyptians always used to say back in the decades when they were fighting wars against Israel, the Palestinians were always willing to fight Israel to the last Egyptian.
Rather, the refusal reflects Abbas’s recognition that although Hamas has followed in the path of his old boss Yasir Arafat and led the Palestinian people to more death and destruction with no hope in sight, it is the Islamists who seem to represent the wishes of the Palestinian people, not the so-called moderates that he leads. Any acceptance of any refugee solution that does not involve “return” to what is now Israel is the political third rail of Palestinian politics. Indeed, the refugees themselves are adamant about their rejection of any solution short of “victory” over Israel.
That is why Abbas, though supposedly in favor of a two-state solution, has rejected it every time the Israelis have offered the PA independence over almost all of the West Bank, Gaza, and even a share of Jerusalem. As much as we are told that in the aftermath of the latest war in Gaza that the time of the moderates is upon us, Palestinian opinion polls indicate that they are still backing Hamas. That means they won’t make peace with Israel no matter where its borders are drawn. So long as the refugees remain homeless, when Palestinians speak of Israeli occupation, they are clearly referring to pre-1967 Israel, not the West Bank.
Egypt’s offer to the PA is a healthy sign that many in the Arab world are rising above their hatred for Israel and ready to make peace, if not for the sake of the Jews then to help them combat the Islamist terror threat. That is a remarkable thing that should be celebrated. The Palestinian refusal is, however, a very unremarkable confirmation of the fact that they remain unready and unwilling to make peace.