A ceasefire that holds? The timing finally seems to work for everyone.
Israel has destroyed the easiest targets in Gaza, including major tunnels, rocket stockpiles, and command sites. Getting the rest will be very bloody for both sides, and Israel would have been damaged goods coming into next month’s UNGA opening, just when Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu needs to be making his case on Iran, and how the May/June breakdown of talks with the Palestinians was not Israel’s fault.
If the ceasefire holds, and if Abbas is given a prominent role in the process, there’s a chance of working back to some quiet in time for next year’s Palestinian elections, when Fatah could still defeat Hamas as the legitimate government. Then Gaza has a glimmer of hope, for everyone. Without a credible pathway toward a comprehensive settlement involving Gaza and the West Bank, neither Gaza nor the West Bank is likely to remain quiet for long.
All Israelis suffer from the casualties on their side. Right-wingers can at least comfort themselves with the knowledge that a two-state solution involving transfer of control and evacuation of outlying settlements in the West Bank may now be the least likely future outcome. Although even many left-wing Israelis are inclined to see protests and sometimes anti-Semitic riots as global condemnation of Israel’s right to self-defense, the fact is that most governments have been supportive or at least tolerant of Israel’s actions in Gaza. The media coverage hasn’t been favorable, but – right or wrong – there’s no way for Israel to come out looking good when so many Gaza civilians are getting killed by Israeli bombs and shells.
Hamas defines success differently than most governments or national movements. Beyond staying in power, it promises to make life difficult if not impossible for Israel, to resist Israel’s presence in the Middle East, and especially in Gaza and the West Bank. As long as it can accomplish this, it remains relevant to Palestinians and to its funders.
Politically, Hamas would have been down the tubes had it let Abbas run the Palestinian unity government up to 2015 elections, as is. It just got a new lease on life, having demonstrated its willingness to stand up to Israel and to even get some Israel-bound passenger flights canceled. The fact that Hamas has used Gaza’s civilian population as a collective human shield, with devastating results, doesn’t negate the sympathetic optics for many Palestinian “swing” voters. And Hamas may have regained Iran’s support, which was cut off when Hamas took a rare principled stand against the Assad regime.
If the Gaza conflict and Hamas’ bump in popularity compel Abbas to either cancel elections or limit them to the West Bank, Israel will get no credible or legitimate Palestinian peace partner anytime soon, and Abbas will have even less reason to stay on past his 80th birthday. Israel has silenced the worst of the rockets and foiled the great Hamas tunnel plot, at significant cost, but I’d call the past month at least a strategic win for Hamas. Israel is 1,000 times stronger, and yet Gaza is the great and horrible equalizer. Gaza’s losses will be in the millions, while Israel’s costs are already in the billions, plus the lives sacrificed.
After a few false starts and media vilification at the hands of Israeli leaders, Secretary of State John Kerry really needed a successful ceasefire along with the talks being convened in Cairo. Of course, these developments should help Israelis and Palestinians first and foremost. But rebuilding Secretary Kerry’s credibility, at least provisionally, gives him an opportunity to possibly deliver substantive outcomes that go beyond the immediate truce.
The last round of Israeli-Palestinian talks generated some clarity on positions and modalities, but ultimately proved fruitless – to the point, where the chief U.S. negotiator publicly burned bridges to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, effectively blaming him for the failure and breakdown of the process. The fact that, at one point last month, Kerry seemed to be working more closely with Turkey and Qatar than with Israel, was also used by Netanyahu’s team to discredit both Kerry and the very notion of a ‘premature’ ceasefire. And the previous ceasefire, which turned back into a firefight after only 90 minutes, was a cause for official Israeli I-told-you-so’s.
Egypt’s original proposal had been rejected by Hamas, whose leaders don’t trust the new Sisi regime and weren’t even consulted in advance. Getting Hamas and the rival Fatah’s Palestinian Authority (PA) to Sisi’s table will be seen as a breakthrough. Without some way of launching comprehensive Israeli-Palestinian negotiations and opening Gaza, Hamas will retain its economic, political and military control within Gaza; Israel’s withdrawal will remain unilateral; and it won’t end there – just ask the protesters in the West Bank.