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.

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.