Egypt has demonstrated a great deal of persistence in seeking reconciliation between Fateh and Hamas. The only thing that matches Egypt s persistence is Hamas reluctance to accept any sort of compromise. Hamas defiance, however, has not been sufficient to deter Egypt from resuming its mediation effort after each new setback, and this will continue to be the case until circumstances allow for a policy shift.
At first glance, the Egyptian mediation role between the Palestinian factions is a double-edged sword. While it enhances Cairo s stature and influence in regional politics, repeated setbacks have hurt Egypt s image and called into question the effectiveness and validity of its Hamas policy. Yet Egypt s interest in bringing Fateh and Hamas to terms goes far beyond considerations of image and influence. It is part of a broader regional vision within which the restoration of national unity among Palestinians plays a central role. Palestinian reconciliation is an integral part of the groundwork required for the peace process to take off and a prerequisite for any serious progress toward peace. Sustainable peace requires bringing on board all relevant actors, and Hamas is definitely one of them.
Hamas policies, however, need to be moderated and its pattern of alliances needs to be reoriented so that it can play a constructive role in the Middle East peace process. Egypt s open-ended mediation between the Palestinian factions is one of the tools used to moderate Hamas. It is important to keep reminding Hamas that the semi-state it currently controls is neither acceptable nor legitimate. It is important to force Hamas into a position where it has to respond to questions about the future of the Hamas-run entity in Gaza.
It looks tempting at times to end this prolonged game of mediation in the hope of further pressuring Hamas. Yet cutting Hamas off is only likely to force the organization deeper into the hands of the rejectionists. Hamas could be far more destructive should it be fully isolated. Keeping the moderate option open could help strengthen moderate elements in Hamas when circumstances allow. Hamas confronts a lot of sticks held by many actors; the only carrot and the only hand extended to it come from Egypt. This policy should be maintained for obvious reasons even if it does not look fruitful in the short term.
The failure thus far of Egypt s effort is not surprising even for Cairo. Palestinian reconciliation is a major development with a number of prerequisites that are not yet in place. The Palestinian divide is, to a great extent, a function of a deep regional divide. Hamas is not likely to concede as long as it continues receiving the support of regional actors like Syria and Iran and as long as these actors continue to have reasons to adhere to their positions.
Iran is a revisionist power seeking regional hegemony. Hardliners in Tehran have an ideology-based blueprint for the Middle East. Iran s position is further hardened by the appeal of the Iranian ideology to large segments of the public in diverse countries around the region. The failure of the Middle East peace process is among the factors conducive to enhancing Iran s capacity to mobilize the support of the disappointed public of the Arab world. Even though Iran is not offering the Palestinians a feasible exit from their tragedy, prolonging the conflict in the Middle East is sufficient to grant Iran the conditions it needs to substantiate its bid for leadership in the region.
While it is unrealistic to anticipate Iranian moderation in the near future, the situation with Syria, Iran s main regional ally, is different. Syrian policies are more amenable to change. Contrary to Iran s revisionist grand design and long-term goals, Syrian hard-line positions are designed to serve more specific interests. A settlement of the territorial dispute with Israel, coupled with certain security guarantees, looks sufficient to win Syria over to a more constructive policy, including toward Hamas. This would help moderate the radical organization and facilitate Palestinian reconciliation.
But until such a Syrian transformation takes place, Egypt s mediation is not likely to depart from the square it currently occupies. Interestingly, however, Cairo now maintains cold but stable ties with Damascus. Relations between the two countries had hit rock bottom earlier this year as a result of the conflicting policies they pursued toward the Gaza war. In particular, Egypt opposed Syria s harsh rhetoric and its government-orchestrated public demonstrations against Cairo. Such tactics are seen there as an unacceptable revival of the legacy of the years of turmoil in the 1950s and 1960s. While Egypt can understand and accommodate policy differences regarding Hamas and the peace process, it cannot tolerate a return to the destructive practices of an era that brought only harm to Arab and Palestinian interests.
Since the Gaza conflict, Egypt has been reluctant to opt for a let bygones be bygones option vis-a-vis Syria and its bitter attacks during the Gaza war. But at the same time, Cairo is not allowing further deterioration in its ties with Damascus. Relations between Egypt, Syria and Hamas form a very delicate balance that can only be explained as a function of complex and multiple-level interactions in the Middle East,
Gamal A. G. Soltan is the director of Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies in Cairo. This commentary is published by DAILY NEWS EGYPT in collaboration with bitterlemons-international.org.