The announcement of another 5-day ceasefire through to Monday night does not necessarily indicate that a long-term ceasefire is close. The sides’ agreement in principle to another 120 hours of calm stems principally from their failure to find a solution, not a dramatic narrowing of the gaps between them. The three relevant parties in the Cairo talks — Israel, Hamas and Cairo itself — are deeply at odds not only with each other and also internally as regards their own interests, reducing the prospects of an overall agreement.
Israel apparently wants a long-term ceasefire, but does not wish to pay the heavy price of lifting the blockade on Gaza without a drastic change there: the disarming of Hamas.
Egypt has no desire for an agreement that would give any legitimacy to Hamas, and therefore almost any overall deal conflicts with its interests. At the same time, Egypt doesn’t want the talks to fail completely, since this would mean the end of the Egyptian channel and the search for an alternate mediator such as Qatar.
As for Hamas, here the internal conflicts are worst of all. Gaza’s Islamist rulers want an end to the conflict, but they know that without a significant gain — such as a seaport or airport — they will be subjected to immense criticism by the people of Gaza and rival, more extreme, terrorist groups there. Hamas also knows that the Palestinian Authority would utilize its failure in order to strengthen Fatah’s standing in Gaza and the West Bank. And yet that significant achievement does not seem remotely likely.
How was it that the sides agreed to five more days of the truce? Earlier Wednesday the Palestinian delegates, especially those of Hamas and Islamic Jihad, had made clear that the truce would not extend beyond Wednesday at midnight. At 9:30 p.m., the head of the Palestinian delegation, Fatah representative Ahmad Al-Azzam, had been scheduled to hold a press conference to announce that the talks had failed. But strong pressure from Egypt caused the postponement of that press conference. The Egyptians had already received agreement from Israel to extend the truce and they warned the Palestinians against declaring the talks over. Instead, they urged the Fatah and Hamas delegates: announce a break of a few days for consultations.
Five days in the MIddle East is close to an eternity. Yet, as things stand, it is far from clear that the 120-hour truce will enable an agreement. Hamas wants promises from anybody with the exception of Egypt who can guarantee that Israel will agree to a seaport and airport in Gaza in the foreseeable future. But nobody can make any such guarantees without a Hamas promise to disarm. Meanwhile, the Hamas military wing is urging the political leadership not to compromise. According to Palestinian sources in Gaza, it wants the conflict resumed so long as Israel is not prepared to sanction a dramatic change in the Gaza reality.
And thus the likelihood of a re-escalation is certainly as realistic as the likelihood of an agreement, if not more so. Hamas is under siege in Cairo, not just in Gaza, by three hostile players — Israel, the PA and Egypt. It may well decide not to return to the Cairo talks at all.