The Israel-Hamas conflict reached a 50-day milestone on Tuesday amid a flurry of ostensibly dramatic developments.
A delegation led by retired US Marines Gen. John Allen is in Israel, meeting with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon. Since Allen is the man who drew up American security proposals designed to enable an Israeli withdrawal from much of the West Bank under a peace accord — proposals publicly and privately castigated by Israeli leaders — his visit has sparked speculation of a renewed push for negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority as part of the endgame for the current conflict.
The sense of imminent drama was enhanced by PA President Mahmoud Abbas’s mysterious promise, in an Egyptian television interview on Sunday, that he would shortly unveil a “surprise initiative” to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and that it would be one the Americans — and thus, by extension, Israel — wouldn’t like.
Various unnamed Palestinian officials have been quoted intimating that this initiative, timed to capitalize on Abbas’s return to center stage as a potential key player in resolving the Gaza conflict, will involve seeking a UN-mandated timetable for the establishment of a Palestinian state based on the pre-1967 lines, with the threat of filing war crimes allegations against Israel at the International Criminal Court if the Palestinians’ demands are not met. The Yedioth Ahronoth daily reported on Tuesday that Abbas “has made clear to all sides that he has no intention of taking any responsibility for Gaza unless there is a simultaneous diplomatic process aimed at culminating in a two-state solution based on the ’67 lines.” According to this report, Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi is backing Abbas’s bid to utilize the Gaza crisis in order to advance a new, comprehensive diplomatic bid.
All very dramatic, and all firmly played down in Jerusalem.
The Allen visit is depicted as a natural resumption of Israeli-American dialogue on security, necessitated by the challenges highlighted by every day’s Hamas attacks, notably including its escalated use of short-range rocket fire and mortar shells to rain relentless havoc on Gaza-adjacent communities. As Strategic Affairs Minister Yuval Steinitz said on Tuesday, the current phase of Hamas attacks, which have forced residents of kibbutzim and moshavim near Gaza to flee, underlines the imperative for a demilitarized Gaza and the potential dangers from the West Bank, from where mortar fire could hit Jerusalem, Kfar Saba, Highway 6 and other major population centers and strategic arteries in the center of the country.
As for the talk of new PA roles, surprise initiatives and UN bids, Jerusalem does see an opportunity for the PA to return in some capacity to Gaza, and potential for progress regarding the West Bank, but considers that Abbas is overreaching and overplaying his hand. Israel is not about to agree to demands by Abbas that it rejected in past rounds of negotiation. Critically, while the PA president may regard himself as central to the solution to the Gaza crisis, the Netanyahu government does not.
Even a limited return by the PA to the Strip, to deploy on the Gaza side of the border crossings, cannot reasonably be expected in the short term, because a mechanism would first have to be constructed to ensure that Hamas wouldn’t simply then target the PA forces — precisely as, for instance, it targeted the Erez crossing into Israel on Sunday with barrages of mortar fire. In other words, Hamas would have to be de-fanged and marginalized before the PA could play a meaningful role.
The options for ending the war with Hamas, even after 50 days, therefore remain largely what they have been from the start, involving a complex combination of military force and diplomatic maneuvering. Israel seeks an arrangement for long-term stability, but wants to achieve it without giving diplomatic gains to Hamas. Battered but far from broken, and evidently indifferent to the devastation in Gaza, Hamas has thus far resisted that kind of capitulation.
And so the fighting goes on, with the Egyptian call for an immediate halt to hostilities, and negotiations only after that halt has been achieved, still on the table. Israel is still content to accept those terms; Hamas has breached all previous efforts to end the conflict on that basis.