CAIRO, Egypt — When Secretary of State Hillary Clinton landed Sunday night in Sharm el Sheikh, she brought with her $900 million in U.S. aid for the Palestinians. Total pledges for the Gaza donor conference will ultimately top $4.4 billion.
And almost as soon as Clinton stepped off the plane, she and a cluster of Palestinian, Middle East and European leaders began writing the next chapter in the storied history of unsuccessful conferences held at the popular Red Sea resort town.
“Since Mubarak became President, Sharm el Sheikh has become his place of residence for a good part of the year,” said Walid Kazziha, chair of the Political Science Department at the American University in Cairo. “So often, international conferences have been held there, chaired by Mubarak.”
Former President Bill Clinton and Mubarak held talks there during the 1990s. As with today’s summit, those talks were aimed at resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
The two leaders met there in 1996 to discuss the crisis along with Palestinian and Israeli leaders. The meeting yielded few results and violence continued to escalate up to the beginning of the second Palestinian intifada in 2000.
In a sense, less is at stake with today’s conference. With Israel still trying to form a new government and the Palestinians deeply divided, both politically and territorially, no one expects any grand plan for peace to emerge.
Instead, leaders from around the world are bringing cash to help rebuild Gaza. Clinton has promised $300 million in reconstruction aid to Gaza and $600 million to cover the Palestinian Authority’s budget deficit in the West Bank, Reuters reported.
The European Commission pledged $552.6 million, while the Gulf states promised a collective $1.65 billion over the next five years.
The conference’s efforts have been further complicated by the refusal of many participants to give money directly to Hamas.
Instead, they will give the cash to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, who does not have a foothold in Gaza. Abbas, in turn will distribute the funds in Gaza through international aid organizations.
But by doing it this way, there is a risk that the aid, which is badly needed in Gaza, will become politicized and the reconstruction will be slowed.
“For Hamas, it will probably allow Abbas to operate with that money as long at it’s not funneled through his people there,” said Kazziha. “If it’s going to strengthen the position of Fatah in Gaza, Hamas will not allow that.”
In its long history of summits in Sharm el Sheikh, Egypt has also held regional conferences without including the western powers.
In 2005, Mubarak invited Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, Palestinian Authority President Abbas, as well as King Abdullah of Jordan, to formally end the five-year Palestinian intifada.
Though the summit was successful in declaring an end to the violence, Hamas did not recognize the agreements that emerged from the meetings and violence, therefore, continued in the Gaza Strip.
By holding summits like these, Egypt is trying to re-grasp its regional leadership, after protracted period of loss of influence.
“We have to observe that Egypt’s status as leader of the Arab world has declined dramatically,” said Kazziha.
Egypt’s loss of influence can be attributed partially to its 1979 peace agreement with Israel.
President Gamal Abdel Nasser had been successful in unifying much of the Middle East by creating anti-western, anti-Israeli populist sentiments in the region. But when Anwar Sadat signed the peace treaty following the Camp David accords, many in the Arab world saw it as a betrayal of Egyptian and regional principles.
Egypt’s regional influence has continued to ebb over the subsequent three decades as its close ties to the west the significant aid package it receives annually from Washington have kept it more ideologically inclined to side with the West.
The Mubarak government most recently took heat for keeping the border between Egypt and Gaza closed for much of Israel’s war there. Images of a humanitarian crisis coupled with reports of the slow flow of aid getting across the border enraged many in the region and provoked attacks on several Egyptian embassies abroad.
“I think in the final analysis,” said Kazziha, “those who can lead the Arab world are those who can champion the causes of the Arab world in accordance with the ambitions of the Arab public.”
Rebuilding Gaza is chief among the concerns of the Arab public. And Egypt is surely hoping that it can defy history, declare the conference a success, and begin restoring its role as leader in the region.
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