- - Sunday, August 12, 2018

CAIRO — At a White House summit in April 2017, Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi told President Trump that he was confident the two leaders, working together, would “find a solution to the problem of the century in the deal of the century.”

In the early days of Mr. Trump’s administration, Mr. el-Sissi had high hopes of brokering an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal with the Americans, repairing relations with Washington that had chilled under President Obama and reaping economic benefits from placing Egypt squarely at the center of an eastern Mediterranean energy hub and investment magnet.

Yet Egyptian zeal to partner with Mr. Trump’s special envoys — son-in-law Jared Kushner and Jason Greenblatt, a lawyer with 20 years of service in the Trump Organization — has dimmed in recent months with a lack of concrete progress. The pessimism is spreading to other Arab capitals.

Meanwhile, the situation in Gaza has been heating up. On Thursday, at least 18 Palestinians were wounded as Israel’s air force struck a building in central Gaza City after more than 180 projectiles were fired from the Hamas-ruled enclave into the Jewish state, injuring nearly 20.

It was just the latest in an escalation cycle since May, when Gazans organized mass protests on the border, drawing Israeli fire and renewed international attention to the Palestinian cause.

Many Egyptians fear the U.S. blueprint for a Middle East peace deal fails to take into account Cairo’s priorities.

“American endorsement of Jewish claims in Jerusalem, a perception that the U.S. wants to make Gaza an Egyptian problem and increasing doubts that Trump can find a solution to the Palestinian issue have moved opinion here against the current process,” said Mustafa Kamal, a researcher at Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies, a Cairo think tank with close ties to Mr. el-Sissi’s administration.

The tensions were on display as Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry and Mr. Greenblatt met last week at the Egyptian Embassy in Washington.

Mr. Shoukry warned the Americans that Israeli military actions in the Gaza Strip, along with recent moves by the government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on settlements and rights for non-Jews in Israel, were escalating tensions and threatening Palestinian rights.

Mr. el-Sissi’s government was rocked by Mr. Trump’s announcement in December that it was moving the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem, a move promised and delayed by previous U.S. presidents for fear of inciting Palestinians and alienating Arab governments in the region. The embassy move was announced before any U.S. peace plan for the Palestinians had been floated, harming hopes for a negotiated deal.

“The continuing American identification with Israel’s positions is harming the confidence of the U.S.’s Arab allies — Egypt, Jordan, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia — and kills any idea that the Trump team can be a neutral intermediary in the peace process,” said Mr. Kamal.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas responded to the embassy move by severing contacts with Mr. Kushner and Mr. Greenblatt, leaving any prospect of negotiations stalemated.

Most recently, Mr. Abbas rebuffed an Egyptian attempt to schedule a meeting when the American envoys toured the region in June.

“Any peace agreement that doesn’t clearly include eastern Jerusalem as a capital for the Palestinian state will not be acceptable to the greater Arab and Muslim populations,” said Mohamed Soliman, an Egyptian political analyst based in Cairo, echoing a sentiment widely shared in Egypt.

“From college campuses to company boardrooms, the feeling is this deal is simply too risky even for our president, who was willing to go a long way to keep a special relationship with Trump,” said Mr. Soliman. “The consensus now is that Egypt is taken for granted to solve the region’s problems at the expense of its own sovereignty and national interest and that Trump’s term will certainly last less long than el-Sissi’s.”

Gaza plans

American efforts to persuade Egypt to open its territory in Sinai to Gaza Palestinians particularly rankle the security establishment in Cairo, which fought three wars with Israel over control of the peninsula.

Anxiety over the deal has intensified in Egypt as the American negotiators have focused increasingly on fast-tracking an Egyptian-Palestinian free trade zone with plans for construction of a solar-power grid, desalination plant and airport to be built on the Egyptian side of the border with Gazans moving to the northern Sinai to work and possibly live.

“I am sure our president will not accept a resettlement plan under any circumstances,” said Saeed Okasha, an Israeli affairs analyst at the Al-Ahram Institute in Cairo. “We can allow infrastructure for Gaza to be built in the Sinai, but there is no flexibility in terms of ceding our lands to solve someone else’s problem.”

Critics of the Kushner-Greenblatt plan say it’s impossible to address the pressing economic needs in Gaza before tackling with Israel the long-standing questions of borders and refugees that come with the establishment of a Palestinian state.

The refugee issue came into focus again last week amid reports that Mr. Kushner proposed that the more than 2 million registered Palestinians living in Jordan no longer be listed as “refugees,” a word that implies a right to return to land inside Israel.

Washington has called for the abolition of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East, the main international body providing services to the Arab population who left the territory that is now part of Israel during the 1948 war.

“Trump is stirring the pot and increasing the fire thinking he will get faster results from Palestinians,” said Sherif Fathi Elhelwa, chairman of iQ Power, Inc., a Cairo energy development company specializing in renewables. “But stability requires a more carefully scheduled process. If Palestinian, Jordanian and Egyptian needs are ignored, the entire plan for eastern Mediterranean energy production and processing, including exports to Europe, will collapse.”

Mr. el-Sissi and his aides have made it clear that they will continue talking about regional peace with the Trump administration. At the end of July, Washington released $195 million in military aid to Egypt, funds withheld earlier because of concerns over the country’s human rights record.

“We agree on the importance of consultations and coordination between Egypt and the United States in the upcoming period to de-escalate the situation in the occupied Palestinian Territories and to overcome the current stalemate,” Mr. Shoukry said after Tuesday’s meeting with Mr. Greenblatt.

But outside of diplomatic quarters, Egypt’s alienation from Mr. Trump’s self-described “deal of the century” is bluntly apparent.

“The Americans need to know that other countries who are really interested in a just solution for the Middle East would work with Egypt to pursue one,” said Mr. Kamal, the Al-Ahram researcher, saying Cairo is ready to bypass the U.S. and work through the United Nations to secure statehood for the Palestinians.

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