Without much fanfare, an Israeli delegation arrived in Cairo on Tuesday for indirect ceasefire talks with Hamas, and while a comprehensive long-term agreement currently appears elusive, if not highly unlikely, the resumption of hostilities seems equally unlikely, even if no deal is struck.
Mere hours after they commenced, the talks, which are ostensibly intended to lead to a longterm solution for Gaza after this summer’s Operation Protective Edge, were adjourned until late October due to upcoming Jewish and Muslim holidays.
Hamas is seeking to get Israel and Egypt to agree to lift the blockade of Gaza and allow for the construction of a sea port and an airport. Its leaders also demand Israel stop arresting its operatives in the West Bank. Israel is willing to discuss ways to enable the reconstruction of the Strip, but links easing import and export restrictions to the demilitarization of Gaza and the disarming of Hamas, a demand the group is certain to reject. Jerusalem also demands the return of the bodies of two soldiers killed during the 50-day conflict, Hadar Goldin and Oron Shaul.
“It is quite clear that Hamas has no interest in resuming fire,” Brig.-Gen. (Res.) Michael Herzog, an adviser to the Israeli peace negotiating team, said Monday. “Not only were they severely beaten during the war, but also they feel that the population does not like them to go down that road again. There are high expectations about reconstruction, so it’s quite clear that Hamas is not interested” in escalating tensions.
Since Operation Protective Edge ended on August 26, there have been two instances in which mortar shells or rockets were fired on Israel from Gaza. In both instances, Hamas moved quickly to arrest the cells responsible. “It appears that (fire) was against Hamas policy and that they are enforcing the ceasefire,” said Herzog, who is also a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “On the ground, the situation is stable. The ceasefire is holding.”
The Israeli delegation to Cairo consists of senior Defense Ministry official Amos Gilad, Shin Bet chief Yoram Cohen, and the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories Maj. Gen. Yoav Mordechai.
Israeli officials involved in the talks were reluctant to discuss the substance on the record, but in private conversations said there are several possible scenarios for the continuation of the talks a month from now: For one, the negotiations could collapse soon after they resume because no agreement can be found — in which case Hamas and other terror groups in Gaza might resume firing at Israel, provoking Israeli retaliation. However, this is deemed rather improbable, because neither side is interested in another conflagration. Another highly unlikely possibility is that a breakthrough is reached and Israel and the Palestinians strike a deal about Gaza’s future.
“It’s impossible to reach any agreement here,” Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman said Monday at a meeting of his Yisrael Beytenu party.
“I’m the last one who is looking for military adventures. We don’t look for wars,” he added. But if a military conflict is forced on Israel, it needs to score a decisive win and topple Hamas, he said, repeating the mantra he used during the summer conflict. “We will always demand to go all the way and not to reach another temporary timeout.”
Far more probable than an Israeli attempt to overthrow Hamas in Gaza, though, is a prolonged period of negotiations, during which there will be no fire from either side, and at the end of which both sides agree on certain steps related to “day-to-day issues” to facilitate the reconstruction of Gaza.
Last week, the two sides reached an agreement that will allow the start of such rehabilitation, brokered by the United Nations’ special Middle East coordinator Robert Serry. According to that deal, the Palestinian Authority would be in charge of ensuring that materials sent into Gaza for reconstruction will not be diverted to Hamas’s military efforts.
At the time, Mordechai, the Israeli general, said the mechanism would allow Gaza’s rehabilitation to go forward while securing the defense interests of Israel. Israel is worried that cement, iron, and other materials could be diverted to rebuild Hamas’s rocket arsenal and its attack tunnels, which were constructed to carry out terror strikes against Israel.
“The reconstruction of Gaza will serve Israel’s interests because, alongside Israel’s power of deterrence, the Gazans will own property that they will be afraid to lose again,” Maj. Gen. (res.) Yaakov Amidror, a former national security advisor, wrote in a paper last week.
While Israel needs to insists on a mechanism that would minimize, as much as possible, the entry into Gaza of material that could be used to build rockets or tunnels, Amidror acknowledged that it cannot entirely prevent a rearmament of Hamas. “We must not delude ourselves that Israel can prevent this absolutely — partial prevention of spillover will have to suffice. It cannot be prevented completely.”
Israel’s stated long-term strategic goal — the complete demilitarization of Gaza — is unrealistic at present, Amidror indicated. “The true test is not whether Hamas will continue to rebuild its military might,” he wrote, adding that unless Israel reoccupies Gaza such a scenario is unavoidable. Rather, Israel should aim at preserving the ceasefire, making sure no terrorists dare to fire on its southern border. “The longer the calm persists, the more of a success the operation will have been.”
Indeed, it appears that neither Hamas nor Israel will be able to score major points in the negotiations that began Tuesday before entering their month-long hiatus. At the end of the process, Jerusalem will not be able to celebrate that Gaza was disarmed, and Hamas will not be able to declare an end to the siege on Gaza. But both sides, in the mean time, can probably look forward to at least a few weeks of quiet.