In a previously undeclared summit, on Saturday Egypt’s President Mohamed Morsi will meet Qatari Emir Sheikh Hamad Bin Khalifa Al-Thani, Hamas leader Khaled Meshal and Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Cairo to discuss ways to manage the Gaza crisis. Sources are also suggesting that Palestinian President Abbas may attend the meeting.
The hasty meeting reflects how the pro-Hamas camp feels rattled by the recent escalation in Gaza. This heightened situation was not part of the plan. The new Islamist Crescent wanted to use Gaza as a tool to score some political victories, but not to add a long-term migraine. They are happy to financially support Hamas and raise the rhetoric against Israel, but to face a military escalation and possible ground invasion is not in their interests. That would potentially embarrass them in front of their public and expose their limitations.
Erdogan already has had a taste of the pitfalls of empty threats in Syria, and while the Qatari Emir may want to send messages to their Iranian neighbors, they are not willing to play Russian roulette with the situation. As for Morsi, the tragedy in Assiut, where 49 children died when a train ploughed into their school bus, served as a harsh reminder of the growing problems at Egypt’s domestic front.
There are three challenges facing the three leaders:
First there is Hamas: the organization is not in harmony. It is well known that there are tensions between the hawks and the doves. The outside leaders like Meshaal and those hardline militants inside Gaza like Zahar, who surprisingly did not make any recent appearances, are representative of divisions that may not help the group to agree on a future plan. It appears that some inside Hamas are after escalation, and they already have surprised Israel by their ability to hit Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. They may view ground invasion favorably as it would increase both Gaza civilian and Israel IDF casualties. This would help Hamas negotiate better terms in a ceasefire and claim victory based on defiance and restoration of a “balance of terror.”
Second come the other rebellious factions: there are numerous small parties that probably have strong links with Iran. They have a different agenda and ceasefire is not part of it. If Qatar used Gaza to send a message to Iran, the Islamic republic reciprocated and also replied through Gaza.
Third, there is Israel: Netanyahu is after deterrence. After a trail of target assassination and air bombardment, he is expecting “naughty” Hamas to say, “Ouch, sorry sir, we are scared now and we won’t do it again.” Therefore, short of a joint press conference of all Palestinian factions announcing an end to hostilities and a long-term commitment to a lull, he may struggle to sell this as a victory to his people.
Currently, the Head of General Intelligence, Raafat Shehata, is mediating. His task is colossal, with limited cards in his hands. Each Palestinian militia will try to get out some benefit. Abbas attendance or absence may add another dimension to the already complex situation.
Can the Emir with his large, maroon-colored credit card convince tiny Palestinian factions to shift loyalties? Can Erdogan’s charm help to seal the deal? And most importantly, how far is Egypt willing to go in inheriting Gaza, which seems to be Hamas’ ultimate goal? It is important to remember that both Erdogan and Morsi’s cold relationship with Israel hamper their ability to negotiate with Netanyahu. As I wrote before, Morsi cannot be both a patron and mediator, and the same applies to Erdogan.
The challenges ahead of the 3 Caliphs of Arabia are enormous. Their Sunni crescent is challenged from both the East (Iran) and the West (Israel). The escalation in Gaza is a litmus test of their alliance and a huge test of their credibility. It will be interesting to see the outcome of their summit, apart from the loud rhetoric and bashing of Israel.