Gaza Peace Talks: Hamas’ Dilemma

Egypt’s crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood continues on the diplomatic front with the opening of two sets of talks this week in Cairo. One set will have Egypt brokering discussions with Fatah and Hamas on the future of governance in the Gaza Strip, while the other will see Egyptian and Palestinian Authority (PA) representatives shuttling between Hamas and an Israeli delegation.

Although Egypt brokered the ceasefire deal between Hamas and Israel that ended 50 days of rockets flying out of Gaza and Israel, which devastated the tiny strip, it cannot have escaped Hamas’ notice that Egypt has an agenda of its own—and it is shared with just about every other party involved.

A sign of what Hamas will face was displayed this weekend, as UN Middle East envoy Robert Serry worked on achieving an agreement for 250-500 international observers to monitor reconstruction projects in Gaza. The purpose of the monitors would be to ensure that all materials brought into Gaza, and all the work done with them, is exclusively used to rebuild the homes, infrastructure and public buildings that were destroyed by Israel’s recent onslaught. The UN would be working with Israel and the Palestinian Authority to guarantee that outcome.

Hamas is facing the consequences of the unity deal it agreed to back in April. At that time, Hamas was losing popularity in Gaza, was seeing what support it had in the Arab world evaporating, and found itself unable to pay civic employees. But the events of the summer changed things, at least for the time being.

Now Hamas is riding a wave of popularity after facing Israeli bombardment again and coming out battered but not broken. Qatar, whose support remains dubious, acted more supportive during the fighting. And, Hamas thought, the ceasefire arrangement would get the understandably disgruntled and desperate workers see some kind of paycheck. With Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas having angered many Palestinians by wavering sharply between public condemnations of the Israeli onslaught and continued cooperation with Israeli security in the West Bank, Hamas had reason to reconsider the unity agreement.

But it accepted the agreement, which now seems like a trap. Abbas is insisting that the unity government be allowed to take over the administration of Gaza. Hamas is surely aware that in that event, the PA would have to embark on a campaign to control the violence in Gaza as it did with the West Bank. In other words, even without agreeing to disarm Gaza—an Israeli demand—the PA would, in fact, do just that. And, with no elections currently scheduled, Hamas could find itself completely marginalized.

This is, without a doubt, exactly what Egypt wants. Certainly the leadership knows that any attempt to disarm Hamas and the other armed factions in Gaza would be met with resistance. But Hamas, at least, is still substantially weakened after the battle with Israel. Egypt might reasonably expect that this fact will lead to a different outcome than the 2007 battle between Fatah and Hamas, which ended in a decisive Hamas victory. Moreover, Abbas has very little legitimacy in Gaza, but if he becomes the Palestinian face of reconstruction and of a marked improvement in the lives of the people there, it would be enough to slowly drain more support from Hamas.

It may well be that, if successful, Egypt would press Israel to end its blockade of Gaza and even allow the construction of an airport and seaport there. This would create a comparative economic boom in the beleaguered Gaza Strip and could keep things calm in the region for an extended period. For Israel, the downside would be increased diplomatic pressure to get back to serious negotiations about a two-state solution. That is exactly what Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu feared when the Palestinians struck the unity accord, and the reason why he manipulated the murder of three young Israelis to lead to a much broader attack on Hamas.

But Netanyahu also knows that if there is one thing Israel excels at it’s negotiating endlessly with no results. He also knows that Israel’s behavior in Gaza angered many leaders around the world, particularly with the repeated attacks on UN facilities and the blatant targeting of civilians. Israel’s denials and claims of accidental actions have been greeted with skepticism at best, even in Washington (everywhere, that is, with the obvious exception of the halls of Congress). Israel’s position is not nearly as strong as Netanyahu thought it would be when the fighting stopped. Therefore, it may be that Netanyahu will accept the Palestinian unity government if it can marginalize Hamas.

Egypt certainly will work hard to convince Netanyahu to do so. Netanyahu reaps some benefits from having Hamas, which maintains some degree of control over Gaza but is a frightening specter to Israelis. Israel also enjoys having the Palestinian body politic split between Gaza and the West Bank.

But Egypt, under its new-old regime headed by Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, is quite keen to wipe out what they see as the last vestige of Muslim Brotherhood political power in the region. Egypt gets no benefit from the Palestinian split, and in fact would probably prefer to see the PA under Abbas assume control of Gaza to sideline Hamas. The hope would be that such a PA would work with Egypt to strangle ties between Gaza and militant groups in the Sinai, enabling some indirect assistance in that endeavor from Israel.

But most of all, Sisi wants to wipe out Hamas as a player in the region. That’s not necessarily what Israel wants. But even if the PA once again controls Gaza, and the strip and the West Bank become one territorial unit again, that is a far cry from the circumstances that would create real pressure on Israel to end its occupation.

The UN simply wants to rebuild Gaza, although it’s not very happy with Hamas either, after the group was caught using UN facilities to store weapons. Still, Robert Serry is likely inclined to focus on humanitarian relief rather than regional politics. But in order to do that, it needs to work to ensure that Hamas is not involved in that reconstruction.

Hamas knows all of this, but cannot simply refuse to go to these talks just because they’re in Cairo. Without these negotiations, international relief will not come into Gaza. Egypt has them in a difficult spot.

But Hamas also must be expected to abide by the unity agreement it signed. It knew this was part of it, and if circumstances have made that agreement less palatable, that is the risk it took. What it needs to do now is press for elections as soon as possible, under the terms of that same unity agreement.

By the time such elections could be held, some of the luster will have come off of Hamas’ steadfastness over the summer. And, if it does agree to allow the PA to take over Gaza again, it will also likely be abdicating its position as the leading revolutionary group among Palestinians. From that point on, other factions will be raising weapons against Israel and, quite likely, the PA as well.

Egypt certainly believes that this will eventually lead to Hamas’ disappearance. More sober minds in Israel probably fear that this will strengthen more radical groups in the Palestinian Territories, and they are probably correct.

But in the last analysis, the Palestinians must be unified. In that future, Gaza can be helped and the Palestinians can at least potentially have a representative leadership. The pitfalls are many, and the motives of the various players are dubious to say the least. But the alternatives are all far less likely to produce progress.

Is This the Real Gaza Ceasefire?

Israel and Hamas have agreed to another ceasefire, and there seems to be some sense that this one will last. The terms of the 14777243476_4f4b3f01b0_z-620x350agreement leave many issues up in the air, which tends to work strongly in Israel’s favor. It’s worthwhile to look at who might have won and lost, under the assumption that this ceasefire will actually hold.

The tragic reality after fifty days of bombings, rockets and ground invasions is that neither Israel nor Hamas comes out of this with gains. Israel has gained a ceasefire, but at this point, they have nothing else to show for their efforts. Hamas has gained another episode where they were able to survive Israel’s onslaught, but at the cost of thousands of lives and the destruction of infrastructure that, even for Gaza, is unprecedented. Both sides are looking toward the extended peace talks that are supposed to take place within a month, but counting on such things is often a frivolous effort in the Middle East.

Benjamin Netanyahu

Whatever arguments might be made for the proposition that Israel won this conflict, they cannot apply to the prime minister. Benjamin Netanyahu’s approval ratings can make one seasick: they rose to over 80% at the end of July only to fall to 36% now. While people in Gaza are celebrating the end of the ceasefire, Israelis are relieved but wondering what it was all for.

Netanyahu does not relish this sort of military operation and one can see why. He doesn’t handle them well, as evidenced by the constant shifting of his goals. He started with “quiet for quiet,” moved on to harming Hamas and eliminating its tunnels, then to disarming the group, and finally, when those goals were clearly unattainable, he went back to “quiet for quiet,” jumping at an agreement of that nature as quickly as he could.

Netanyahu is now going to face international pressure to seriously engage in peace talks through Egyptian mediation. His preference, and that of his right flank in Israel, will be to stall on such talks, but with the United States and Europe increasing their support for a resolution to the issue of Gaza, Netanyahu will find himself in the middle of a tug o’ war battle. With that same right flank becoming increasingly alienated from and hostile to him, he may be forced to the table.

That table will house yet another massive failure on Bibi’s part. Back in June, he seized upon the murders of three Israelis, lied to the Israeli public when he knew they were dead, whipped the country into a frenzy and started a process in motion that he could not control, which eventually led to the probably unwanted outcome of “Operation Protective Edge.” Bibi’ purpose in all of this was to rend asunder the Palestinian unity government.

Now the United Nations, the European Union, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and crucially, the United States, are pushing for that same unity government—currently composed of technocrats led by Mahmoud Abbas—to take over in Gaza. This was certainly evident in Secretary of State John Kerry’s words supporting yesterday’s ceasefire announcement.

Speaking about the urgent need to get construction and humanitarian supplies into Gaza Kerry said:

We are also prepared to work with our international partners on a major reconstruction initiative, with appropriate measures in place to ensure that this is for the benefit of the civilian population in Gaza, not Hamas and other terrorist organizations. We look forward to coordinating closely with President Abbas and the Palestinian Authority on these critical efforts

That is a clear statement of support for the current PA to take over Gaza. United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon was even more clear.

“Gaza must be brought back under one legitimate Palestinian Government adhering to the PLO commitments,” he said. “The blockade of Gaza must end; Israel’s legitimate security concerns must be addressed. The United Nations stands ready to support efforts to address the structural factors of conflict between Israel and Gaza.”

The plan is to circumvent Hamas as the rulers of Gaza, but there is no hint of any further action against them, and they are already part of the new PA. In many ways, this is Netanyahu’s worst nightmare.

Israel

No one in Israel does or should like the way this has turned out. The small radical left opposed the attacks from the beginning. The Zionist left, as represented by Meretz Chairwoman Zehava Gal-On, welcomed the ceasefire but criticized Netanyahu for going to war and ending up where he could have gotten without violence.

The right is furious over the ceasefire, with four of Netanyahu’s cabinet ministers, including key figures on the right, Naftali Bennett and Avigdor Lieberman, publicly stating their opposition. The failure to achieve the disarmament of Hamas or knock the group from its perch atop the ruins of Gaza is widely seen as a failure throughout Israel.

Ha’aretz correspondent Barak Ravid summed it up aptly:

Netanyahu just wanted to return to the status quo that has become a personal ideology, but the reality is that Israel has regressed. That regression is encapsulated in the 69 Israeli fatalities, 2,000 Palestinian fatalities, the bulk of them innocent civilians, thousands of projectiles on the communities in the south, hundreds of missiles on the center of the country, deserted communities, the loss of trust in the IDF and the government among the residents of the south, economic damage amounting to billions and diplomatic and PR damage that is impossible to quantify.

Hamas

Despite its bravado, Hamas hasn’t gained much and has likely lost a lot in this conflict. Much will, of course, depend on whether the planned talks in Cairo ever happen and what, if anything, comes from them. But as things stand now, Hamas is riding a positive wave in Gaza because it has again survived an Israeli onslaught. But beneath that euphoria is a bitter reality.

The devastation wrought in Gaza is well beyond Hamas’ rebuilding means. This raises a question that I have brought up before: Will Hamas be willing to let the PA run Gaza? They should, but giving up power, even in so meager a sphere as an occupied territory, is never easy.

Hamas will not be able to pay salaries, an issue that was dogging them long before this cataclysm, and in fact, was a major reason they agreed to the unity government in the first place. They will need international assistance and lots of it, and that is only going to come through the PA.

But there is a great deal of anger among Palestinians toward Mahmoud Abbas over his behavior during this crisis. While Hamas leader Khaled Meshal has been recently meeting with Abbas to come to an agreement on a ceasefire, the leadership in Gaza, battered and bruised, may find themselves less able to stomach Abbas, who continued security cooperation with Israel during this crisis, than the considerably more acceptable Meshal.

Still, the PA doesn’t exclude Hamas specifically. It’s currently a technocratic government led by Abbas, pending new elections. But will those elections ever happen and, when and if they do, can Hamas trust that it will be allowed to compete fairly and fully? It was allowed to do so in 2006, but when it won, the United States and Israel immediately moved to undermine the election results, even backing a Fatah coup attempt. So, on the one hand, that’s a lot of trust to expect from Hamas, but on the other, that is also what it agreed to risk when it signed on to the unity government. The choice rests with Hamas.

The Biggest Losers

As always, it is the people of Gaza who, whether the Palestinian cause is aided or not, always endure the brunt of these conflicts. With over 2,100 dead and many thousands injured, infrastructure further battered, and tens of thousands of structures and homes destroyed, the suffering of these people is almost unimaginable. It may well be that they will end up with a much more open border, and that will matter. But the shattered families, the death and destruction, and the scars from all of this violence are going to haunt Gaza, and Israel, for many years.

There’s another big loser here, and it is, as cliché as it may sound, peace. Once again, Israel has demonstrated to the Palestinians that force is the language in which it speaks and the only one it understands. Even the marginal, immediate gains for Gaza—the easing of movement for humanitarian and construction supplies, and according to many reports, the extension of the zone in which Gazans can fish to six miles—were won by aggression, not diplomacy. For comparison, Palestinians can look at what two decades of negotiations got Abbas—lots of settlements.

Many in Israel, even some among the moderate right, understand that this is what Israel has communicated. Unfortunately, that understanding does not extend to Netanyahu, who drones on and on about how he has “hurt” Hamas.

In the end, there may be some good that comes out of this for the Palestinians, though as always, the hope is a thin one and the price is terribly high. But nothing at all here bodes well for Israel.

How Israel Lost

In this week’s column at Souciant, I do a rundown of the winners and losers in the so-called “Operation Pillar of Defense.” I examine a number of different actors, not just Israel and Hamas, as well as some of the regional implications. Hope you find it interesting.

Netanyahu’s New Friends

In my latest piece for Souciant, I look at Benjamin Netanyahu’s ineffectual “threat” to cut off the negotiations to nowhere with the Palestinian Authority if they reunify with Hamas.

Bibi clearly wants a situation where the US will back an Israeli refusal to continue negotiations, and Hamas joining a unity government gives him that. But in the longer run, that strategy might well backfire and, ironically, offer the best hope we have left for a peaceful resolution that both sides can live with.