Egypt’s proposal, bad for both sides, means the conflict may end with no deal

Cairo’s terms would give Hamas international legitimacy and the capacity to rearm (bad for Israel), no significant gains (bad for Hamas), and an enhanced role for Abbas (bad for both)

Avi Issacharoff

Avi Issacharoff, The Times of Israel's Middle East analyst, fills the same role for Walla, the leading portal in Israel. He is also a guest commentator on many different radio shows and current affairs programs on television. Until 2012, he was a reporter and commentator on Arab affairs for the Haaretz newspaper. He also lectures on modern Palestinian history at Tel Aviv University, and is currently writing a script for an action-drama series for the Israeli satellite Television "YES." Born in Jerusalem, he graduated cum laude from Ben Gurion University with a B.A. in Middle Eastern studies and then earned his M.A. from Tel Aviv University on the same subject, also cum laude. A fluent Arabic speaker, Avi was the Middle East Affairs correspondent for Israeli Public Radio covering the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the war in Iraq and the Arab countries between the years 2003-2006. Avi directed and edited short documentary films on Israeli television programs dealing with the Middle East. In 2002 he won the "best reporter" award for the "Israel Radio” for his coverage of the second intifada. In 2004, together with Amos Harel, he wrote "The Seventh War - How we won and why we lost the war with the Palestinians." A year later the book won an award from the Institute for Strategic Studies for containing the best research on security affairs in Israel. In 2008, Issacharoff and Harel published their second book, entitled "34 Days - The Story of the Second Lebanon War," which won the same prize.

A Palestinian woman uses a piece of rebar she found amid the rubble, for support as she walks past destroyed homes in a street in Beit Hanoun, northern Gaza Strip, on August 12, 2014. (photo credit: AFP/ROBERTO SCHMIDT)
A Palestinian woman uses a piece of rebar she found amid the rubble, for support as she walks past destroyed homes in a street in Beit Hanoun, northern Gaza Strip, on August 12, 2014. (photo credit: AFP/ROBERTO SCHMIDT)

As talks resume in Cairo Sunday morning, the chances that the negotiations will yield a long-lasting ceasefire, according to both Israel and the Palestinians, are low, maybe even faint. One of the main difficulties is the problematic nature of the Egyptian proposal — for Hamas, and to a lesser extent for Israel.

Nonetheless, even after weeks of exhausting fighting between Israel and Hamas in the Gaza Strip, the two sides continue to share common interests. First and foremost, both the Israeli government and Hamas desperately want to return to a state of quiet. Moreover, as unexpected as it may sound and although no one will admit it, Israel would apparently at the end of the day like to see Hamas continue to rule in Gaza.

The problem is with the Egyptian proposal itself. The proposal is broadly favorable to Israel, though it does give certain international legitimacy to Hamas and will likely strengthen the group’s position among the Palestinians in the near future. The agreement would also restrict Israel’s ability to operate in the Gaza Strip and would allow Hamas to continuously arm itself as it pleases.

Another “problem” the proposal poses for Israel is the return of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas from the sidelines to the forefront of the political scene, including in Gaza itself. It is doubtful that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon, and Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman would be excited to see such a development. While to many in Israel Abbas’s return may sound more like a solution then a problem, it is unlikely this trio of politicians share that point of view.

And regardless of the status of Abbas, it seems, as both Justice Minister Tzipi Livni and Economy Minister Naftali Bennett now maintain, that it would be better for Israel to take unilateral steps toward a ceasefire, including providing the people of Gaza with humanitarian aid.

As for Hamas, it too understands the Catch-22 situation the Egyptian agreement would place it in. With the deal deliberately glossing over such issues as the construction of a seaport and an airport, and with even the exact date for the opening of the Rafah border crossing unspecified, the Egyptian proposal does not include any obvious significant gains for the organization.

Initially, Hamas might boast of having “lifted the blockade,” in light of the clauses in the Egyptian deal that would see an easing of terms at the border crossings and a widening of the area off the Gaza coast open to fishermen. But in the long term, the proposal does not change the situation in Gaza significantly, at least not in favor of Hamas.

The organization would be limited in terms of its ability to construct tunnels and to attack Israel. The agreement would give Abbas a foothold in Gaza as well. In some ways, it would simply render Hamas irrelevant. Hamas would be seen as the organization that destroyed Gaza, the Palestinian Authority as the organization that rehabilitated it. This may explain the combative interview given by Hamas political bureau chief Khaled Mashaal on Saturday — in which he insisted there would no resolution of the conflict without the full lifting of the blockade and the opening of a seaport and an airport — as well as the fact that the group seems in no hurry to sign the agreement.

The headlines on Arab television have in recent days focused, naturally, on the fighting between the Islamic State and Kurdish forces in Iraq. The Peshmerga forces are conducting a counterattack 50 kilometers away from Mosul, with American air assistance.

Interest in Gaza, even on Al-Jazeera, has slowly waned, replaced by the terrible impact of the Islamic State’s massacres. The reduced focus on the Strip, however, may allow both sides to end the fighting without an agreement. Hamas may occasionally fire rockets and mortar shells into Israel, but such a move would not likely prompt a further escalation in Gaza. Israel is not really striving to topple Hamas or demilitarize Gaza either.

One more point. The Palestinian Authority and Israel have a shared understanding about at least one issue: the lack of relevance of the American government to a political solution in the region. By contrast, both Jerusalem and Ramallah have enormous respect for Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi and for the way he is operating. Therefore, it may be Sissi, not John Kerry or Barack Obama, who will be able to broker a resumption of peace negotiations between Netanyahu and Abbas. Maybe in a few months, after things calm down in Gaza, the Egyptian president will invite the two leaders to a conference in Cairo and announce a new peace effort.

Maybe. It’s most probably preferable to another round of fighting with Hamas.

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