This piece also appears at TPMCafe
Reports are emerging from the region that the long awaited truce effort mediated by Egypt between Israel and Hamas (representing all the Palestinian factions in Gaza) is reaching closure. According to reports, the arrangement will come into effect at 0600 on Thursday, barring any negative developments. It is still unclear whether this will be a formal ceasefire or a set of informal arrangements—though you can certainly forget any theatrical hand shaking ceremony with accompanying pyrotechnics (well not those kinds of fireworks, anyway). Negotiations have been taking place for several weeks and if there is a cease-fire, or tahadiyeh, then it will be fragile, have implications for Israeli and Palestinian politics, for the peace process, for the region, and for the US. So here are 10 quick and initial thoughts on where we are, what to expect, and what to look out for.
1. Will the Cease-Fire Actually Happen?
The next 24-48 hours will be crucial and tense, and will determine whether the cease-fire even begins let alone holds. Both sides will want to go into any de-escalation from a position of perceived strength and as having the upper hand, especially for mutual domestic marketing purposes. So both sides can be expected to try one last push, one last strike in the coming hours (the Israeli Air Force mission that killed 6 Army of Islam militants this morning can probably be seen in this context). If there is a harsh PIJ or other Palestinian response, or more Israeli strikes and things escalate out of control before zero hour, then all bets are off. Both sides probably have a sense of just how far the envelope can be pushed. Expect this kind of mutual prodding, but nothing game- changing, and therefore yes, one can expect with caution the cease-fire to actually happen.
2. What the Cease-Fire will include and setting realistic expectations
Any cease-fire will include a package that extends beyond the basic cessation of hostilities. The package will include: (a) the easing of the closure on the Gaza Strip thus allowing not only essential supplies to enter Gaza but also materials that allow the Gazan economy to gradually return to some kind of normality; (b) greater efforts to prevent weapons from entering the Gaza Strip from Egypt for use against Israel; (c) progress on the prisoner exchange deal for the release of Gilad Shalit, the IDF soldier who next week will mark two years of being held in Gaza.
Certainly both sides will be preparing themselves for a possible next round of fighting, so expect Israel to reinforce its defensive systems along the border area with Gaza and expect Hamas to do likewise on its side and to continue its efforts to enhance its rocket capacity. Israel on its part will be fast-tracking the development of its missile interception systems. Some see the truce as an inevitable prelude to a next and bloodier round of escalated conflict. Neither side will eschew this option, but neither side necessarily welcomes it. It is not inevitable but maintaining a fragile cease-fire will require progress on all the items in the cease-fire package as well as patience and the setting of realistic expectations.
3. Potential Deal Breakers
I will discuss the internal rumblings on the Israeli side below and will focus here mainly on the potential spoilers coming from the direction of Palestinians and “friends”. The most obvious deal breaker would be for a relatively minor infraction such as a rogue rocket attack or pinpoint Israeli mission to usher in a cycle of counter-response and therefore escalation.
Particular things to look out for include: (a) can Hamas control the other factions. In particular, whether Palestinian Islamic Jihad—very possibly with Iranian encouragement—will be too eager to push the envelope. Small splinter groups such as the Army of Islam/Daghmush clan also fall into this category; (b) Fatah-affiliated militias inside Gaza may themselves seek to undermine the cease-fire in order to deny Hamas any victory and to stir up trouble for their domestic opponents. Fatah groups could work with or influence renegade elements of the Popular Resistance Communities in such actions; (c) the problem of the West Bank—the cease-fire does not extend to the WB so both Israel and the Palestinian factions may want to make a point by continuing to carry out operations in and from the West Bank. The IDF will continue its arrests and other military operations which could provoke a response from Gaza or an escalation that sucks in Gaza, Palestinian groups might launch attacks against Israel from the WB that have similar effects on the cease-fire prospects.
4. The Israeli Dilemma
There has been an intense debate inside Israel over the desirability and efficacy of a possible truce, including disagreements within both the Defense establishment and inside the cabinet. The Defense Minister (Ehud Barak) and IDF Chief of Staff (Gabi Ashkenazi) carried the day, having consistently advocated a preference for the cease-fire option over a military assault that would likely carry significant human and other costs and would be unlikely to significantly improve Israel’s even medium term security. Ehud Barak has shown considerable leadership in pushing this through. There are though weighty dissenting voices, including from the Shin Bet, and they may be looking for any opportunity to push back against the cease-fire, undermine it and pursue their preferred military path. This tension will be ongoing and will be put to the test every time there is a glitch.
Some claim that the Israeli intention is to declaratively support the cease-fire arrangement so that the afterwards the inevitable military operation will receive greater domestic and international understanding and support. I would question this assumption—it may be a consideration for some but I think many are not convinced that there is any good military option and have learnt the lessons of 38 years of occupying Gaza and the toll that took. But again, expect fragility. Of course, the political uncertainty in Israel is also playing a role, with accusations that a discredited Israeli Prime Minister is ill-positioned to launch a major military operation—I would argue that this particular dynamic should not be exaggerated, it is a factor but a limited one.
5. Where is President Abbas?
Let there be no doubt that this is an Egyptian mediated deal between Israel and Hamas. If there is a successful cease-fire with an improvement in the Gaza situation then further standing and credit will accrue to Hamas among the Palestinian population. The division in the Palestinian polity and the fact that President Abbas represents only one part of that equation, both politically and geographically, means that he could not be a significant party to any understandings regarding Gaza. Elements in the Fatah may indeed try to undermine the cease-fire.
One of the next issues to deal with will be whether or not there is a serious effort at internal Palestinian reconciliation. Abbas has recently called to renew a unity dialogue with Hamas and Hamas has consistently stated its willingness to participate in such a dialogue. Three considerations probably led President Abbas to move in this direction: (a) anticipating a possible cease-fire, Abbas wanted to initiate the move so that it would not be seen as a response to Hamas having gained additional leverage as a consequence of this tahadiyeh; (b) the flip side to the above, if the cease-fire fails and there is an ugly and bloody escalation—namely that Abbas would be seen as having reached out to his fellow Palestinians in Gaza in earnest rather than having abandoned them; (c) given the political developments and complications in Israel, Abbas may now feel that the peace talks with Olmert are reaching a dead end and in this context he is returning to the option of a unity dialogue with Hamas. I would suggest that it would be no bad thing to allow the Palestinians to engage on these issues themselves rather than to force through an Israeli-Palestinian agreement on paper in a situation where one side has basically lost legitimacy and the other is so deeply divided and perhaps also legitimacy-challenged. It is not yet clear whether the Abbas call for unity talks is a serious one or that it will go anywhere.
6. And Where is the US?
The Bush Administration was not a party to this mediation effort, and until recently displayed little enthusiasm for what Egypt was trying to help the parties achieve. There are hints that that has changed—not the basic position regarding Hamas, but an appreciation of the necessity of de-escalating the conflict around Gaza as an end in itself and as something that could otherwise definitively topple the Abbas-Olmert peace talks.
While the US has not yet welcomed the cease-fire, during her recent Middle East visit Secretary Rice did set out a position that at least did not contradict the parameters of the understanding being brokered by Egypt. It is unclear whether Secretary Rice encouraged the truce effort during this last visit, although the close proximity of today’s announcement to that visit may provide a clue.
This much is clear: the US has been noticeably absent from all the major recent diplomatic developments in the region—the Qatari brokered Lebanon deal, the Turkish sponsored Israeli-Syrian proximity talks and now this Egyptian mediated cease-fire. Secretary Rice was in Lebanon yesterday and did welcome the new developments within that country, perhaps suggesting that the State Department at least is taking a more realist approach and is happy to see others pursue diplomatic solutions that are opposed by conflicting elements within the US administration, but that can be welcomed by the Secretary of State after the fact as fait accomplis.
7. The Egyptian Role
Egyptian mediation will have been a significant factor should a cease-fire be established and locked in. For both Israel and Hamas (and the Palestinians in general), the relationship with Egypt has strategic significance, and in this particular instance Egypt is more player than bystander—having a role to play in both prevention of weapons smuggling into Gaza and an agreed modality for opening the Rafah border crossing between Gaza and Egypt. Neither side want to go too far out on a limb in embarrassing the Egyptians by precipitously undermining the cease-fire—a small but not insignificant factor in favor of this effort’s success.
Egypt of course has its own interests and is concerned about the repercussions of the ongoing deteriorating humanitarian, economic and social situation in Gaza which already once already spilled over into the Egyptian Sinai and is likely to do so again. Egypt also has a complicated relationship with its own Muslim Brotherhood domestic movement and this impacts its considerations vis Hamas. In the long term, an exclusive Egyptian mediation role with Hamas is not a good idea for anyone including the Egyptians themselves.
8. The Cease-Fire vs. the Peace Process
It is difficult not to see this cease-fire deal as more significant than anything that has been going on in the formal peace negotiations between the Israel government and the PLO/PA Ramallah. Any effective truce will further enhance the sense of the futility of those negotiations even though an improved security environment will create a more promising backdrop to those talks. The opposite is certainly true, that a significant deterioration and expensive Israeli military campaign in Gaza would have effectively put an end to or at least led to a suspension of the Abbas-Olmert talks. Under normal circumstances, a cease-fire, far from undermining parallel peace talks, would actually enhance their prospects. But these are not normal times, Olmert is unfortunately too politically handicapped and Abbas presides over too divided a Palestinian polity for either of them to cut a deal.
9. The Regional Equation
Any truce would not take place in a regional vacuum. Part of the Israeli logic for exploring the cease-fire is to remove a possible card from the Iranian hand and decrease the possibilities of Gaza being used as an Iranian front against Israel. A similar logic could be applied to Israel’s pursuit of renewed negotiations with Syria, and the Lebanon deal may also have similar consequences in narrowing Iran’s regional options. This could be, but is not necessarily an indication of Israel’s intentions vis Iran.
Also worth noting is that Hamas is anything but comfortable when it is excessively dependent on Iran, it is not a proxy, and is uncomfortable when Fatah accuses it of acting in Shia or Persian interests. So in that respect, Hamas prefers to have an Egyptian or other option.
10. The Cease-Fire Betting Index…
Well it doesn’t exist yet as a betting option on intrade (unlike the peace deal by year’s end, which trades at a 17% probability). But the odds would not be good. The cause for hope is that neither side really thinks it has a better option. Israel cannot deal a definitive military blow to Hamas and the opposite equation is even more unlikely. The residents of the Israeli communities in the south bordering Gaza, including Sderot and Ashkelon, will welcome a respite from the intolerable and unpredictable realities of life in the shadow of rocket fire. The 1.4 million Gazans who are not expecting to spend next year in the US as Fulbright Scholars have been subject to the devastating humanitarian consequences of the collective punishment imposed on their small strip of territory. Both of these communities will bear the ultimate price if the cease-fire does not hold.
It is just possible that a cease-fire could take effect and create a self perpetuating dynamic of success. But that is unlikely if the bigger picture issues continue to be neglected including—what happens on the West Bank, reducing tensions in the region, and creating a livable-with security equation for both Israelis and Palestinians.