Anatomy of a cease-fire

Israeli youths sitting on a bluff in southern Israel near the Gaza border on Sunday watch as Gazans fire rockets into Israel. Photo by JTA
Israeli youths sitting on a bluff in southern Israel near the Gaza border on Sunday watch as Gazans fire rockets into Israel.
Photo by JTA

After numerous failed attempts at achieving a lasting cease-fire between the Hamas government and Israel (there have been at least 11, as of press time), negotiators in Cairo on Tuesday claimed to have reached a new cease-fire agreement.

Although details of the agreement have yet to be released, some experts are skeptical it will hold – as the talks leading up to the deal lacked, to a varying degree, the three major elements they say are required for a successful cease-fire: negative leverage, positive leverage and a credible third-party broker.

Before Tuesday, a delegation of Israeli officials had shuttled between Israel and Egypt for weeks to participate in indirect talks with Palestinian Authority officials representing Fatah, Hamas and the Islamic Jihad in the Gaza Strip, with minimal success. Israel believed Hamas’ demands were unrealistic.

But, according to observers, both sides will have to go through a horse-trading process that will necessitate gains and losses. “If you reach an agreement based on quiet-for-quiet, it is bound to be short-lived, because what concerns the people of the Strip and Hamas is that there is a blockade,” said Shlomo Ben-Ami, former Labor Party minister of internal security and foreign affairs and Israel’s former ambassador to Spain.

Israel has previously accepted quiet-for-quiet cease-fires, in which both sides agreed to end hostilities and default to the status quo without resolving any of the larger, underlying causes of the conflict. It is a strategy Israelis have favored, even if it leaves open the possibility of future hostilities.

In exchange for an end of hostilities, Hamas has continually put forward the same list of demands – an end to the Israeli naval blockade, a reopening of the Rafah border crossing between southern Gaza and Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula, opening of a Gaza seaport and airport, freedom of movement between Gaza and the West Bank and an end to the targeting of Hamas officials.

Palestinians view a building in Gaza City that witnesses said was destroyed by an Israeli airstrike. Photo by JTA

Israel is unlikely to agree to these demands, said Natan Sachs, a fellow at the Brookings Institution’s Center for Middle East Policy, without the assurance of both negative and positive leverage – military or economic pressure combined with carrot-stick diplomacy. “The cost of continuing [to fight] for both sides,” or at least one side, should be “too high.” The lack of negative leverage is the biggest obstacle to sealing a long-term cease-fire with Hamas, said Sachs. “Hamas has its back to the wall right now, severely,” said Sachs, “not just because of Israel, but also because of intra-Arab politics.

The opposition of Egypt and Saudi Arabia to Qatar’s support for Hamas results in Hamas having little to lose and therefore being more prone to fighting.”

Despite Israel’s dealing massive damage to Gaza’s infrastructure and despite the deaths of some 2,000 Gazans, as reported by the Palestinian Health Ministry, the Israeli bombardment may not be enough of a negative incentive to end Hamas’ rocket barrage.

“Hamas doesn’t have enough of a negative incentive partly because it doesn’t care enough about what happens to the people of Gaza,” said Sachs. Ben-Ami believes that the current situation nevertheless provides Israel with an opportunity to push for its primary goal – the demilitarization of Hamas.

“I think that Israel is right not to give in outside of the broader context, which is demilitarization,” said Ben-Ami. “I think this is an opportunity for Israel also to get what it wants, not just Hamas. I think that it is in Israel’s interest that Gaza be opened to the world, that there is prosperity, well-being, stability. But they have to pay and paying means demilitarization.”

If Gaza were prosperous, its citizens would feel they had something to lose if they continued fighting Israel.

For example, if an open seaport could lead to a less desperate existence for civilians, the fear that Israel could close it again might make Hamas less likely to instigate a war. Most of Hamas’ demands remain controversial among Israelis, who have historically seen even the slight loosening of import and export restrictions in Gaza exploited to rearm Hamas for its next fight against the Jewish state.

According to both Sachs and Ben-Ami, a loosening of trade restrictions would have to be accompanied by thorough oversight by either an international force similar to the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL), which Israel is unlikely to concede to, or the Fatah-aligned Palestinian Security Forces, who are unlikely to be welcomed by Hamas.

The third element lacking in recent cease-fire efforts is a credible third party. So far, nearly every major effort to end the conflict has been spearheaded by Egypt. Since the ouster of Mohamed Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood, relations between Egyptian and Hamas leaders have been tense, leading to questions of whether Egypt is in a position to play peace broker.

“There is an important role played by Egypt” because of its control of the Rafah crossing, said Itamar Rabinovich, president of the Israel Institute in Washington and former Israeli ambassador to the United States. “Egypt is in no hurry because … Hamas is an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood, which is a big enemy of Egypt, and they don’t mind seeing them hurting.”

Rabinovich said that, in previous skirmishes, the United States’ role as peace broker was critical. This time, despite U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry’s well-publicized attempts to intercede, the parties have pushed the United States to the sidelines.

“In a sense, Egypt is not really just a broker here, it’s almost a side in the conflict,” said Sachs. “The Egyptians are trying to do several different things: they’re trying to be brokers but they’re also trying to get their way; and things that they see as in their own vital interest don’t always align” with the principals.

Yet, even if Egypt is against Hamas, it does not lean toward Israel in the negotiations.

Sachs describes the actions between the two sides as playing “hot potato” with Gaza. Egypt would prefer allowing free movement between the West Bank and the Gaza Strip instead of opening the Rafah crossing, as it believes doing so would move Gaza closer to the West Bank and Israel.

Otherwise, if the only path into Gaza were through Rafah, Gaza would be pushed in Egypt’s direction Without America to broker a cease-fire, Ben-Ami believes that the only chance for an honest broker lies in the form of a broad, international coalition.

“If Hamas is demilitarized, then the international arrangements will work regardless of whether Hamas is interested in a war,” he said. “That’s the point on which Israel should insist.”

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@dmitriyshapiro contributed to this story.

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