Egyptian leader el-Sisi’s diplomatic challenge is that key powers such as the U.S., Iran and Israel will not be at the table.
BEIRUT — Egypt’s leader Abdel Fattah el-Sisi is forging ahead with a peace summit in Cairo on Saturday that he hopes can avert the Gaza crisis from escalating into a broader regional war, but his key problem is the all-important trio who won’t be there: the U.S., Israel and Iran.
Leaders of a dozen countries, including top officials from Turkey, Qatar and Europe, are converging on Egypt for the conference, but the absence of the big three at the heart of the conflict makes it highly unlikely the summit can pull anything out of the hat.
Iran is the heavyweight player looming over the conflict. Tehran is both an ally of Hamas, whose militants killed more than 1,400 people in Israel in the attack of October 7, and of Lebanon’s Hezbollah, which many observers fear is poised to enter the war against Israel from the north.
Only increasing the fears that Iran is fomenting a destabilizing proxy war across the Middle East, Tehran-backed militant groups launched a series of rocket and drone attacks on U.S. garrisons in Syria and Iraq this week, while pro-Iranian Houthi rebels in Yemen launched three cruise missiles thought to be targeting Israel. The missiles were intercepted by a U.S. warship patrolling the Red Sea.
Pentagon spokesman Brigadier General Patrick Ryder told reporters: “Right now, this conflict is contained between Israel and Hamas, and we’re going to do everything we can to ensure deterrence in the region, so that this does not become a broader conflict,” he said.
A major diplomatic breakthrough looks like it would need a broader vision for peace, however. Walid Jumblatt, a hardened Lebanese political veteran who leads the Druze minority, pointed out the people who really mattered would not be round the table in Cairo. “They are non-players,” he said. “They don’t have any influence. The three players are Israel, Iran and America.”
European Council President Charles Michel and Josep Borrell, the EU’s foreign policy chief, as well as leaders from Italy and Greece, are also attending Saturday’s gathering, but European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen won’t be in Cairo. She has faced a backlash from European lawmakers and diplomats for not explicitly calling on Israel to respect international law in its war on Gaza during a trip to the country last week.
Lebanese lawmaker Wael Abou Faour insisted a “ceasefire is the only thing that can save us — Lebanon — as well as Egypt and Jordan.”
The United States vetoed a U.N. resolution Wednesday calling for a pause in the fighting to allow humanitarian assistance into Gaza, which has been under near-constant bombardment since Hamas attacked Israel. The U.S .Ambassador to the United Nations Linda Thomas-Greenfield said the resolution failed to underscore Israel’s right to self-defense.
Rounds of diplomacy and visits by Western leaders, including President Joe Biden, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, have underscored a widening rift between Arab leaders and their American and European counterparts on how they see the Gaza conflict and the best ways of averting a bigger war.
U.S. ‘not mediating’
Western leaders have been lobbying Arab leaders to support Israel and back its efforts to eradicate Hamas. They say Israel has a right under international law to defend itself from attack — and they view the crisis largely as a terrorist problem.
Arab leaders say the only real solution is for the West to make good on promises to establish an independent Palestinian state alongside Israel and el-Sisi has underlined the conference must discuss “the future of the Palestinian issue. He has condemned Israeli retaliation for “exceeding the bounds of self-defense and amounts to collective punishment” of Gazans.
Earlier this week, he said Egypt’s priority was to end the violence and provide humanitarian assistance to the Palestinians trapped in Gaza.
Both the Egyptian leader and Jordan’s King Abdullah II have their own security concerns about displacement of the Gazan population and a significant refugee influx. “No refugees in Jordan, no refugees in Egypt,” the Jordanian monarch said Wednesday.
El-Sisi also warned midweek that the current war was not just aimed at fighting Hamas “but also an attempt to push the civilian inhabitants to … migrate to Egypt.” He warned this would wreck peace in the region.
Other regional politicians criticize Western leaders for only belatedly acknowledging the humanitarian crisis in Gaza, saying for all the talk now of supplying aid none has got into the coastal enclave because of Israeli airstrikes.
“What we see is a double standard when it comes to Arab civilians,” said Achraf Rifi, a former Lebanese justice minister, stressing the United States used to be seen as a mediator, but no longer. “It is not mediating; it is escalating with its rhetoric.”
“They talk about an Israeli child being killed but turn a blind eye to a Palestinian child,” he said. Rifi, a Sunni politician from the north of Lebanon and a fierce critic of Hezbollah is a former head of Lebanon’s national police.
On the Cairo conference, he wasn’t allowing his hopes to build too high, and had no illusions on the stakes. “We are hoping it can find a way out for everybody, or we are all going to see hell.”
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