What does Israel really expect to get out of the Cairo talks?

What does Israel really expect to get out of the Cairo talks?

The goal is sustained quiet and demilitarization of Gaza. But amid reports of a return to the 2012 understandings, there’s a lot of confusion about how to get there

Raphael Ahren is the diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

Defense Minister Moshe Ya'alon (left) and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at a cabinet meeting at the Defense Ministry in Tel Aviv,  July 31, 2014. (photo credit: AP/Dan Balilty, pool)
Defense Minister Moshe Ya'alon (left) and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at a cabinet meeting at the Defense Ministry in Tel Aviv, July 31, 2014. (photo credit: AP/Dan Balilty, pool)

As Israeli delegates arrived in Cairo Monday to negotiate a long-term ceasefire between Israel and Hamas, Jerusalem demanded an end of all hostilities and the demilitarization of Gaza. Officials threatened that “all options are on the table” to achieve that goal, emphatically not excluding a renewed and expanded ground operation in the Strip.

Yet it remains unclear how Israel will go about achieving these goals. Hamas did not acquiesce to Jerusalem’s requirements during last week’s three-day truce, which suggests that the organization has not been deterred by the month-long war and has enough stamina to continue fighting until its demands are met.

Israel knows that. So what does Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu really expect to get out the Egyptian-brokered talks? A thorough demilitarization of Gaza, for which he has repeatedly advocated, seems an unrealistic pipe dream, as Hamas will never agree to lay down its weapons. (Though not for lack of trying, as evidence by a new diplomatic push by Finance Minister Yair Lapid announced Monday night.)

Moreover, Hamas vows to continue attacking Israel until the blockade on Gaza is entirely lifted, a stipulation that Israel resolutely rejects. In light of these facts, some are predicting that the Cairo talks are doomed to fail and that Israel will find itself unable to escape the loop of tit for tat, forced to wage an ongoing war against Hamas.

In official Israel, cautious optimism reigns. “The jury is still out, and all options remain on the table,” a senior Israeli official told The Times of Israel on Monday. “The goal we set out at the beginning — sustained peace and security — will be achieved one way or another, through diplomatic means or through military action, or a combination of them both.”

Israel is well aware that the 72-hour truce might not last beyond its expiration at midnight on Wednesday — if it even makes it that long, the official allowed. “There are nine ceasefires that Israel has accepted and honored, and Hamas has rejected and violated all of them. We are realistic and we remain vigilant, with the military ready to act.”

While insisting that the government will somehow succeed in restoring calm, the senior official acknowledged that Israel might be in for one or maybe more rounds of violence.

“One way or another, our goal will be achieved. But it might not be achieved quickly,” the senior official said, warning of what could be a prolonged conflict.

How long will it take until Hamas gives in to Israel’s demands? “As long as it takes,” he said.

In Cairo, Jerusalem will try to work out a deal that will guarantee a sustained period of quiet, the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity. “No missiles, no terror tunnels.”

Yitzhak Molcho (left), Shin Bet chief Yoram Cohen (center) and Amos Gilad (right), three of the prime minister's envoys to Cairo ceasefire talks (Photo credit: Michal Fattal, Yossi Zamir/Flash90)
Yitzhak Molcho (left), Shin Bet chief Yoram Cohen (center) and Amos Gilad (right), three of the prime minister’s envoys to the Cairo ceasefire talks (photo credit: Michal Fattal, Yossi Zamir/Flash90)

Israel’s five-person delegation will “obviously” be talking about demilitarization, the official said, acknowledging that Netanyahu does not imagine the destruction or removal of all illicit arms that currently exist in the Strip, but rather aims at the prevention of rearmament by Hamas and other terrorist groups there. (The delegation comprises senior Defense Ministry official Amos Gilad; Shin Bet chief Yoram Cohen; Netanyahu’s associate Yitzhak Molcho; Maj.-Gen. Nimrod Shefer, the head of the IDF’s Planning Directorate; and the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories, Yoav Mordechai.)

“We will be talking to Egypt about not allowing them to rearm — that’s the first stage,” the senior official said. In the long term, Israel hopes for Gaza to be demilitarized entirely, with the help of the international community, he added, but refused to elaborate.

According to an unconfirmed report on Channel 2 Monday night, Israel’s delegation in Cairo is basically demanding a return to the understandings that were agreed upon at the end of Operation Pillar of Defense in November 2012.

Those arrangements provide for an end to violence, and for eased access to Gaza, and would doubtless be spun by Hamas as dramatic gains, the TV report said. In practice, however, Israel would supervise any access to Gaza from its side, and Egypt would oversee any access from its side, while having Mahmoud Abbas’s Palestinian Authority deploy 1,000 security troops at the Rafah Border Crossing. And Israel and Egypt would work together to prevent Hamas from rearming.

The report also said Israel is ready to double the number of trucks bringing humanitarian supplies into Gaza via the Kerem Shalom crossing — from 250 a day to 500. Israel is further prepared to let building materials into the Strip, under careful supervision, but no “double use” materials such as iron and various chemicals, which might be diverted to the Hamas terror infrastructure, would be allowed into the Strip.

On Monday, Lapid’s office announced he would convene an international conference on demilitarizing Gaza and returning control to the Palestinian Authority, with the help of Egypt, Israel, the US, the PA, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, “Gulf States” and representatives of the Quartet for Mideast Peace.

‘The PA security force is preferable to Hamas’

Israel is ready to give the Palestinian Authority a leading role in the rehabilitation of the coastal enclave, Netanyahu said last week. “It’s important in the reconstruction of Gaza, in assuring the humanitarian aid and also the security questions that arise, that we have these discussions and the cooperation with them.”

A few weeks after Israel condemned Abbas for building a unity government backed by Hamas, Abbas is now apparently considered good enough to be trusted with guarding the Rafah crossing between Gaza and Egypt.

“Let’s be frank: The PA security force is preferable to Hamas,” the senior Israeli official said.

Netanyahu’s vision of Operation Protective Edge’s endgame, hazy as it is, does not satisfy most members of his cabinet.

“It’s clear now that Hamas’s minimum demands are far more than the maximum Israel can agree to,” Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman said Sunday, calling on the government to “defeat Hamas, clean up the area, and exit as quickly as possible.” At present, this options appears highly unlikely. On Monday, Liberman insisted that, no matter what, the current war must not “end with Hamas leaving with the feeling that terror pays.”

(Last week, Liberman had suggested that Jerusalem consider handing control over the Strip to the United Nations after Hamas was defeated, an idea that has failed to garner any support.)

Also on Monday, Internal Security Minister Yitzhak Aharonovich told Ynet that there is “little chance of reaching an agreement.” After the 72-hour truce, “we’ll return to fighting and we’ll need to progress to the next stage, which is the decision-making stage,” he predicted.

Justice Minister Tzipi Livni, on the other hand, believes that Operation Protective Edge presents Israel with the genuine opportunity to change the region for the better. Earlier this week, she presented a plan calling for the replacement of the Hamas leadership in the Gaza Strip with that of Abbas, and for international initiatives to disarm the Gazan terror groups.

‘Probably we will have a war like this every few years’

No one in the government talks about the possibility of an extended, ever-reoccurring cycle of violence, a war of attrition, in which Hamas and Israel find themselves unable to reach a lasting ceasefire. But some Israel analysts believe that such a scenario is unavoidable.

“Probably we will have a war like this every few years,” said Efraim Inbar, the director of Bar-Ilan University’s Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies. “We have to mow the grass, basically. Since we cannot affect the motivation of Hamas — a fanatic organization — we can only debilitate its capabilities. This is what we’re doing.” During Operation Protective Edge, he added, “we haven’t done enough and this is why they continue shooting. So we probably have to mow the grass some more.”

Hamas will continue to smuggle weapons even if Egypt and Israel were to control all of Gaza’s border crossings, Inbar asserted, and added that it is impossible to defeat Hamas once and for all, as some Israeli ministers demand. “The Palestinians like Hamas; what can we do? I don’t think we can uproot an organization that has 35-percent support in the population. At least not in the short term.”

Others disagreed, arguing that a sustained calm would be possible if Israel and the Middle East’s moderate states reached a regional peace agreement that would isolate Islamist extremists. Postulating that Israel is doomed to an endless war of attrition “has no empirical basis,” said Yehezkel Dror, a former political science professor at the Hebrew University. “I would agree to this thesis if Israel had made serious efforts to reach a reasonable regional peace agreement. But it hasn’t even tried.”

The Palestinians alone have little to offer to Israel and therefore Jerusalem should look for a broader framework, based on the Arab Peace Initiative, suggested Dror. Such a move would improve Israel’s standing in the region and the world at large, and would expose those unwilling to recognize Israel’s existence — Hamas and Hezbollah — as enemies of peace, he stated. “Instead, Israel is repeating the same things all the time. There’s nothing new. It’s up to Israel to try to break out of this vicious circle.”

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