APTOPIX Mideast Israel Palestinians
Smoke from an Israeli strike rises over Gaza City on July 24, 2014. Adel Hana—AP

As Israel Fights Hamas in Gaza, Egypt Plays the Peacemaker Once Again

Jul 24, 2014

John Kerry, the beleaguered U.S. Secretary of State, arrived in Cairo Monday to try and broker another cease-fire agreement between Israel and Hamas, a Palestinian militant group which controls the Gaza Strip. B ut it's not the U.S. that's most likely to get a deal done - it's Egypt.

Egypt has often played the role of negotiator when conflicts between Israel and Hamas have bubbled up in the past. Former Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak brokered a cease-fire between them in 2009. After Mubarak was given the boot in 2011, it was left to Mohamed Morsi to negotiate the next truce.

Cairo, though, has a rough road ahead. Israel and Hamas aren't likely to seek a cease-fire just yet, as both are claiming successes in their latest bout of violence. Israel says it's destroying Hamas' tunnel network. Hamas, meanwhile managed to scare several international airlines away from flying to Israel for a few days for fear of rocket attacks. It also claimed to have captured an Israeli soldier.

Egypt's position as peacemaker dates back to 1979, when then-president Anwar Sadat, exhausted by Egypt's 30 years of war with Israel, signed a peace agreement between the two countries. It was a deeply controversial decision — Israel is not, and was not, considered a traditional ally by other Arab countries. Sadat was assassinated two years later.

"In the intervening 35 years [since 1979], Egypt has always played an important role, both because of its geography and the peace treaty," says Robert Danin, Senior Fellow at the Council for Foreign Relations. "It is the largest Arab country and still has a leadership role."

Yet for Egypt's current president, Abdul Fattah al-Sisi, who took control after playing a key role in ousting the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood's Morsi, the peace treaty and its accompanying accord agreeing to Palestinian autonomy no longer carry much weight.

"The view in the west is Egypt has traditionally played [the role of peacemaker] and this is a role they should play now," says Eric Trager, Wagner Fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. "But Sisi is in an existential conflict with the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, and Hamas is the Palestinian equivalent. Egypt views Hamas as the same as the enemy they're fighting at home ... It's not going to offer cease-fire terms that are at all favorable to Hamas."

International diplomacy isn't exactly at the top of Sisi's agenda, either. Facing upheavals in Egypt's Western Desert and the Sinai, plus the ever-present threat of the Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt's president has his own domestic conflicts to sort out.

It's easy to assume that a prolonged war between Israel and Hamas would benefit Egypt, who wants to see Hamas weakened. But Danin thinks otherwise, as Egypt's Arab partners put pressure on it to act.

'"At a certain point [conflict] isn't [beneficial]," says Danin. "When things get out of hand, the perception in the Arab world is that Israel is slaughtering Palestinians ... it puts Egypt in a difficult position."

Egypt's acting as a negotiator not only appeases the Arab world — its financial backers in the Gulf States particularly — but the U.S. as well.

"Sisi needs to establish his credibility in the West," says Dr. Claire Spencer, Head of the Middle East and North Africa Program at Chatham House. Brokering a cease-fire presents "Egypt as a power to be reckoned with," she adds.

If Egypt can help put an end to Israel's current invasion in Gaza, it will be lauded as a peacemaker and a key player in international diplomacy. Yet Sisi may have darker motives for getting involved with negotiations. Cairo's current record on rule of law, democracy and human rights is dubious, to say the least. The recent sentencing of three Al-Jazeera journalists to seven years in jail is only one example of this. "When people are focusing on Israel this is good," says Danin. "It means people aren't focusing on Egypt."

Sisi, then, is torn. Arranging a cease-fire between Israel and Hamas will paint him as a hero to the West and the Arab world, both sick of the bloodshed in Gaza. Yet any cease-fire that benefits Hamas will cost him support amongst his party and strengthen an enemy. Caught in this deadlock, a truce looks unlikely. Whatever Sisi suggests, Hamas is almost sure to refuse.

Israel's Ground Invasion of Gaza Continues

A Palestinian Christian man from Gaza tries to push the coffin of Jalila Ayad in her grave during her funeral on the small and overcrowded cemetery of the St. Porfirius church in Gaza City, July 27, 2014.
A Palestinian Christian man from Gaza tries to push the coffin of Jalila Ayad in her grave during her funeral on the small and overcrowded cemetery of the St. Porfirius church in Gaza City, July 27, 2014.Oliver Weiken—EPA
A Palestinian Christian man from Gaza tries to push the coffin of Jalila Ayad in her grave during her funeral on the small and overcrowded cemetery of the St. Porfirius church in Gaza City, July 27, 2014.
Palestinian men gather things they found in the rubble of destroyed buildings on July 27, 2014 in the Shejaiya residential district of Gaza City as families returned to find their homes ground into rubble by relentless Israeli tank fire and air strikes.
PALESTINIAN-ISRAEL-CONFLICT-GAZA
A Palestinian man walks past destroyed houses in Beit Hanoun northern Gaza Strip, July 26 2014.
Palestinian women react amid the destruction in the northern district of Beit Hanun in the Gaza Strip during an humanitarian truce on July 26, 2014.
Destruction in Gaza City
Palestinian girls peers from inside a UN school in Jabalia, north Gaza Strip, on July 25, 2014, where they found shelter after escaping from their home.
Smoke from an Israeli strike rises over the Gaza Strip, July 25, 2014.
Israeli APCs drive near the Israeli border with Gaza as the come out of the Gaza Strip July 25, 2014.
Mortar cases are piled at a military staging area near the border with the Gaza Strip, July 24, 2014.
A Palestinian man holds a girl injured during shelling at a U.N.-run school sheltering Palestinians, at a hospital in the northern Gaza Strip on July 24, 2014.
Blood stains of displaced Palestinians are seen inside the UNRWA school in Beit Hanoun after it has been hit, Gaza Strip, July 24, 2014.
A Palestinian woman stands in front of buildings damaged by Israeli bombardment in the Jabalia district of the northern Gaza Strip on July 24, 2014.
Relatives hold the bodies of Palestinian children Hadi Abdel Nabi, 3, and one and a-half-year-old Abdel Rahman Abdel Nabi, at the cemetery in Jebaliya refugee camp in the northern Gaza Strip, during their funeral, July 24, 2014.
A young Palestinian girl who got injured when a UN school for refugees was allegedly hit by a Israeli tank shells, lies on a hospital bed in the emergency room of Kamal Adwan hospital in Beit Lahiya, Gaza Strip, July 24, 2014.
Displaced Palestinians from Beit Hanoun sleep inside the UNRWA school in Jabalia, July 23, 2014.
Wounded Israeli soldiers are brought to a helicopter on July 23, 2014 near Kafar Aza, Israel.
Tensions Remain High At Israeli Gaza Border
Comrades of slain Sgt. Max Steinberg are comforting each other at Mt. Herzl cemetery, Jerusalem, July 23,2014.
Tensions Remain High At Israeli Gaza Border
Palestinians take cover as warning Israeli air strikes are fired at a nearby building in Gaza City, July 22, 2014.
Women grieve during the funeral of Islamic Brigades fighter Abdalla Ismail al Buheisi, in Deir Al Balah, on the Gaza Strip.
Gaza Strip, Gaza Street: A Palestinian man looks through the window of his house at the buildings damaged  overnight by an airstrike in Gaza City.. ALESSIO ROMENZI for TIME
A mosque destroyed overnight in attacks in Rafah, Gaza.
The mother of Israeli soldier Tal Yifrah mourns over his flag-covered coffin during his funeral in Rishon Lezion near Tel Aviv, July 22, 2014.
Israeli soldiers evacuate their wounded comrades at an army deployment area near Israel's border with the Gaza Strip, on July 20, 2014.
Israeli soldiers stand near their tank while smoke due to airstrikes and shelling rises from Gaza on July 22, 2014 near Sderot, Israel.
Conflict in Gaza
Palestinian men bury the bodies of a family who was killed after airstrike in Khan Younis, in the Gaza Strip.
Palestinian refugees unload mattresses at a United Nations shelter in Rafah, Gaza Strip, July 19, 2014.
Palestinian refugees unload mattresses at a United Nations shelter in Rafah, Gaza Strip, July 19, 2014.
Palestinians flee the Shujayeh neighborhood during heavy shelling in Gaza City. July 20, 2014.
Palestinian woman gestures as she stands amidst the rubble of her house which police said was destroyed in an Israeli air strike in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip
A damaged house in Shujaya district in Gaza, seen during a humanitarian cease-fire, July 20, 2014.
Palestinian man holds the hand of a woman, who medics said was wounded in an Israeli air strike, in the northern Gaza Strip
Relatives of three Palestinians from Abu Muamar family, who medics said were killed in an Israeli air strike, mourn during their funeral in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip
Palestinians flee east Gaza neighbourhood
Palestinians carry a body inside the Shifa Hospital morgue, in Gaza City. July 20, 2014.
Casualties mount in Gaza City, Israel expands ground operation
A Palestinian woman wearing clothes stained with the blood of other relatives, who medics said were wounded in Israeli shelling, cries at a hospital in Gaza City
Palestinians, who medics said were wounded during heavy Israeli shelling, sit at a hospital in Gaza City
Rescue workers enter Shuja'iyya to retrieve dead and wounded
A Palestinian girl sits in a minibus after fleeing her family's house during heavy Israeli shelling, in Gaza City
Palestinian woman, who fled her house following an Israeli ground offensive, stays at a United Nations-run school in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip
Israeli soldiers fire their weapons during the funeral of their comrade Bnaya Rubel in Holon
Funeral of Israeli soldier Amotz Greenberg
Smoke rises during what witnesses said were heavy Israeli shelling at the Shejaia neighbourhood in Gaza City
A Palestinian family who fled their homes is en route to seek shelter in a UN school in Khan Younis, Gaza Strip on July 18, 2014.
PALESTINIAN-ISRAEL-UNREST-GAZA
Death toll rises in Gaza
Israeli tanks maneuver outside the Gaza Strip on July 18, 2014.
Israeli soldiers put on their gear on the side of a road across from the Gaza Strip on July 18, 2014.
Israeli soldiers rest inside an armoured personnel carrier outside central Gaza Strip
APTOPIX Mideast Israel Palestinians
Multiple rocket launches from a site inside the Gaza Strip firing towards Israel as seen from a lookout point in southern Israel on July 17, 2014.
A Palestinian salvages rubble of their destroyed homes after their apartment building was hit by an Israeli missile strike in Gaza City on July 18, 2014.
Gaza War 2014 - Funeral
Palestinian mourners gather around the bodies of three siblings of the Abu Musallam family, during their funeral in Beit Lahiya, Gaza Strip on July 18, 2014.
Mideast Israel Palestinians Photo Gallery
Netream Netzleam holds the body of her daughter Razel, 1, who died in an Israeli air strike on Thursday afternoon, at her funeral in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip on July 18, 2014.
Israeli troops move into Gaza
A Palestinian Christian man from Gaza tries to push the coffin of Jalila Ayad in her grave during her funeral on the sma
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Oliver Weiken—EPA
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