Egypt the Peacemaker?

TEL AVIV – Before the current fighting between Israel and Hamas in Gaza escalates further, a ceasefire must be negotiated. Of course, like previous ceasefires, any truce is likely to be temporary, inevitably undermined by the forces that perpetuate Israel’s armed conflict with Hamas. Nonetheless, with Syria consumed in civil war and the wider Middle East already unsteady, a ceasefire is essential both for saving lives and preserving today’s uneasy regional peace.

Much depends on Egypt, which is best placed to broker an agreement. But assessing the prospects of any diplomatic effort requires understanding the protagonists’ perspectives and agendas.

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Israel does not have a comprehensive policy toward Gaza. Former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon took a courageous step by withdrawing unilaterally from Gaza and dismantling the Israeli settlements there. But he fell ill before these measures could be fitted into a larger effort to address the Palestinian issue.

His successor, Ehud Olmert, began negotiating a final-status agreement with the Palestinian Authority’s president, Mahmoud Abbas. But this did nothing to end the violence emanating from Gaza, which has effectively seceded from the Palestinian Authority and become a Hamas-controlled proto-state. Israel’s Operation Cast Lead in the winter of 2008-2009 re-established deterrence and brought a period of relative calm; but it has been clear since the start of 2012 that the parties were once again on a collision course.

During his first term as Israel’s prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu refused to continue to negotiate with the Palestinian Authority on Olmert’s terms, and never considered holding talks with Hamas. He agreed to swap Palestinian prisoners for an abducted soldier, Gilad Shalit; but, for Netanyahu, as for most Israelis, negotiating with an organization whose blatantly anti-Semitic charter rejects Israel’s right to exist is pointless.

From Netanyahu’s point of view, the Gaza problem has no satisfactory solution. His aim is to obtain and maintain calm along the border. Israel provides electricity, water, and passage to Gaza, but also maintains a siege intended to prevent imports of larger, more lethal weapons. Israeli leaders were aware of Hamas’s buildup of medium-range missiles, mostly smuggled through Sinai in underground tunnels, but continue to argue that, absent the siege, Iran and others would supply more (and more sophisticated) weapons.

In fact, Israel discovered over the last few years that Gaza contained enough rockets and missiles to paralyze its south. Major Israeli cities were hit several times. During Operation Cast Lead, rockets struck perilously close to Tel Aviv and Ben Gurion Airport. For Israeli leaders, it was only a matter of time before Tel Aviv could and would be hit.

For its part, Hamas, the Muslim Brotherhood’s Palestinian branch, seeks to consolidate its control over Gaza and use it as a base from which to take control of the West Bank and the Palestinian national movement. This outcome would be comparable to the Brotherhood’s takeover in Egypt, further establishing its ascendancy in the region.

Recent events appear to have emboldened Hamas. Although the conflict between Iran and its Sunni rivals and the Syrian civil war forced it to loosen ties with Iran and Syria and move into the Sunni fold, in many respects this has been a comfortable shift. Hamas feels more confident next to an Egypt dominated by its parent movement. The Emir of Qatar paid a visit to Gaza as a reward for Hamas’s break with Iran and left a check.

But Hamas is not alone in Gaza. Its hegemony is challenged by the more radical Islamic Jihad (which remains allied with Iran) and a host of Salafi and jihadi groups, some connected to radical elements in Sinai, which complicates Hamas’s relations with Egypt. Moreover, these groups have frequently initiated attacks on Israel from Gaza or through Sinai, generating cycles of violence that have embarrassed Hamas.

At the same time, pressure from these more radical groups may have forced Hamas itself to become more aggressive in recent months, perhaps bolstered by the knowledge that its arsenal of dozens of Fajr-5 rockets could hit the Tel Aviv area should Israel retaliate on a larger scale. The change in Egypt’s politics and policies had a similar effect: Hamas calculated that Israel would not jeopardize its fragile relationship with Egypt by launching another ground operation in Gaza.

Hamas was taken by surprise when Israel attacked, killing its military leader, Ahmed al-Jabari, and destroying most of its Fajr-5 arsenal. It responded with massive shelling of southern Israel, and managed to send several missiles toward Tel Aviv and one toward Jerusalem. Air raid sirens were finally heard in Israel’s two largest cities.

In response, Israel is visibly preparing for a large-scale ground operation. There is no appetite in Israel for a second Operation Cast Lead; but nothing less than a stable, long-lasting ceasefire is acceptable.

Such a truce is possible. Israel’s assault scored impressive initial successes, while Hamas can take pride in having reached Tel Aviv with its missiles, an achievement that eluded Hezbollah in the 2006 Lebanon War.

Moreover, Egypt, Hamas’s patron and senior ally, maintains a relationship and channels of communication with Israel, and does not want to sever all ties – not least because to do so would provoke a confrontation with the United States, which underwrites the Egyptian army.

In fact, Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi is seeking more financial aid from the US and the International Monetary Fund, and wants his coming visit to Washington, DC, to be a success. He also wants to restore Egypt’s position as a major regional force. Playing the peacemaker would serve him well on all counts.

So Morsi is juggling. He has denounced and warned Israel, recalled Egypt’s ambassador to Tel Aviv, and sent his prime minister to Gaza. But, so far, he has not crossed a single red line.

There is little time to act. More fighting will bring additional actors into the picture (including Turkey). If the US and Europe choose to remain inactive, they must at least encourage Egypt to play its role.

Egypt’s major obstacle is Hamas’s insistence on an end to the Israeli siege and targeted killings as part of a ceasefire agreement. The challenge for Egyptian leaders is to persuade Hamas to settle on lesser terms without further fighting.

Read more from our "Palestine Goes Global" Focal Point.