This morning, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu made clear the contours of any acceptable long-term ceasefire agreement: “If Hamas thinks it can cover its military loss with a political win, it is mistaken.”
On the face of it, there are two immediate problems. First, Hamas will likely construe any outcome as a victory. They have already claimed the withdrawal of Israeli ground forces from Gaza as one, and Netanyahu’s right flank has done a fine job supplementing this claim. Gross distortions of reality are de rigueur for Hamas statements. Following up on this, if Netanyahu is truly loth to restart the war, why set such a standard?
The answer, like many things related to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, is manifold. To begin with the obvious, what Hamas may claim is a victory may not tangibly be so. For instance, if the Rafah crossing is eventually opened with tight Egypt-PA control and restrictions on Hamas financing, it would hardly be a victory for Hamas. Illegal smuggling at Rafah has been described as “an invaluable source of revenue for Hamas.” Creating a formal crossing controlled by non-Hamas entities, indeed forces hostile to Hamas, would make permanent a crushing economic blow dealt to the terror group when the Morsi government was toppled in Egypt last summer.
Next, there is an alternative to the Cairo talks for Israel: unilaterally ending Operation Protective Edge. This would not entail, as its critics will most certainly claim, Israel’s acceptance of rocket fire as everyday fact. But it would mean a more defensive posture: tit-for-tat, instead of a broad and comprehensive operation.
Considering all of this, the chances of Israel accepting an agreement in Cairo, are still relatively and surprisingly high. This all depends on whether Hamas can relieve itself of delusions involving airports and seaports. Israel, for its part, will have to drop its categorical objections to the Palestinian unity government.
But Israel’s acceptance of an agreement won’t be an about-face on the unity agreement it staunchly opposed in April. As Finance Minister Yair Lapid told the New York Times, pre-operation and post-operation Hamas are essentially two different organizations. Hamas now is vastly weaker than it was before, its impotency on full display. If Hamas is prevented from re-arming, engaging with the unity government is sensible. Holding a dangerous election with an armed Hamas participating, however, will pose challenges later on.
Israel is looking to deny Hamas a victory. It seems they are well on the way of doing so, no matter what happens in Cairo tomorrow.