A Field Guide to the Gaza Truce: Merely "Lock and Reload?"

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

When Secretary of State Clinton, accompanied by Egyptian Foreign Minister Mohamed Amr, jointly announced a few minutes ago at a Cairo press conference the elusive agreement to end the current round of hostilities between Israel and Hamas, the accord represented the first example of cooperation between the U.S. and the new Muslim Brotherhood-led government in Egypt on a major Middle East regional security crisis.  Mrs. Clinton has nothing but praise for President Morsi and Egypt's role in helping to broker the understanding.

Whatever one calls the truce, ceasefire or "quiet for quiet" agreement that (temporarily) ends the latest round of conflict between Israel and Hamas, the accord comes not a moment too soon since it forestalls an inevitable Israeli incursion into Gaza, which Israel deemed essential to put an end to the missile attacks terrorizing its civilians.  As reported by the New York Times, Israel agreed to stop all land, sea and air hostilities in Gaza, including the "targeting of individuals" -- a reference to militants of Hamas and its affiliates who have been killed. The cease-fire also calls on the Palestinian factions in Gaza to stop all hostilities against Israel, including rocket attacks and attacks along the border.  Two hours in and all's apparently quiet on Israel's western front except the sound of celebratory Hamas gunfire, as if Palestinians have not heard enough in recent weeks.

Not unexpectedly, the agreement does nothing to address the far larger and consequential challenge that Hamas poses as an Iranian terrorist proxy, or for the aspirations of Gaza's Palestinian inhabitants for a long-term solution to their difficult and painful existence under Hamas rule.

Secretary Clinton's welcome and evidently successful mini-shuttle diplomacy between Jerusalem and Cairo, along with President Obama's round-the-clock consultations with Israeli PM Netanyahu and Egyptian President Morsi achieved the breakthrough even though Obama and Clinton had made it clear during their swing through Asia that the U.S. had Israel's back and strongly supported Israel's right to defend itself in the face of the torrent of Hamas weapons fired against its civilians.   If Morsi and his Egyptian allies resented the strong American declarations of Israeli support, the Egyptian leader apparently did not let that get in the way of brokering an agreement with Washington.  

As a consequence of the rapid-fire Egyptian-American led negotiations, the U.S.-Egyptian relationship may have taken important steps forward, perhaps ushering in a new bilateral phase focused on incubating the resumption of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, developing strategies for raising the credibility of the new Syrian government-in-exile, and enhancing Libyan domestic stability -- all challenges where both the U.S. and Egypt share common goals.  

But consolidating the Gaza accord is clearly essential before achieving further regional cooperation and will be a rigorous test of a this uneasy post-Arab Spring alliance.

Egypt emerges from the Gaza agreement as the principal "anchor tenant" -- assuming responsibility for policing Hamas's conduct in spite of the sympathy average Egyptians have expressed toward Hamas in recent weeks.  After all, it was the Muslim Brotherhood that gave birth to Hamas in the first place, and it could not have been easy for Morsi to put the screws on his Hamas allies to stand down from their offensive.

Why Hamas decided it was in its interest to abide by Cairo's directives remains unanswered, but Hamas may have extracted from Morsi certain confidential side agreements... stay tuned.

So how do Israel and Hamas emerge from their latest confrontation and how will the agreements fine print and inferences be implemented?

As for Hamas, while it may have gained new stature and sympathy I heard nothing so far to indicate that it was able to extort from Israel a commitment to lift its economic blockade of Gaza -- Hamas' stated goal.  Whether Israel will quietly relax parts of the economic blockade in the days ahead outside the prying eyes of the Israeli media will greatly depend on the sustainability of the ceasefire and whether Israel is convinced that Egypt is prepared to better police the Sinai weapons smuggling tunnels that is Hamas lifeline to Iran.

And what has Israel achieved for all of the terror inflicted on it by Hamas not only in recent weeks, but since Hamas expelled the Palestinian Authority from Gaza?  Regrettably, not much.  The agreement represents merely a return to the status quo ante -- Hamas is still in power, and still going to do everything to resupply its missile stockpiles through the Sinai Peninsula smuggling tunnels. Reflecting the evident dilemma, Israeli PM Netanyahu's office issued a terse statement conveying Israel's willingness to accord Egypt's efforts a chance to achieve an end to Hamas attacks, while reserving Israel's right to act if the ceasefire fails to hold.  

Israel's muted reaction reflects the somber reality that Hamas' capacity to fire missiles into Israel has not been substantially degraded despite the Israeli bombardment.  In fact, up until the ceasefire, Hamas was still firing missiles and executed today's Tel Aviv bus bombing.  Moreover, Hamas has gained new allies, which beat a door to Gaza city during the conflict to publicly stand shoulder-to-shoulder with their new Hamas allies.  Delegations from Egypt, Tunisia, Turkey, Qatar and Arab League all came to remonstrate solidarity -- a far cry from the days when Hamas was viewed in most of the Arab world as a terrorist organization carrying out Iran's beck and call (which, by the way, it still is).  In the warped mind of Hamas' leaders, the conflict's toll of dead and wounded civilians and infrastructure destruction is an inexpensive price for becoming the new kid on the Islamist block, further isolating Israel in the region.

Yet, the ceasefire is a step in the right direction even though the text has not yet been released.  The agreement forestalls a far bloodier battle between Hamas and Israel.  After all, had the talks failed their failure would have triggered an almost-certain Israeli ground offensive into Gaza with all of the attendant consequences that would likely eclipse the 2008 Cast Lead offensive since this time around, Israel would not vacate Gaza without having completely rounded up every last Hamas leader and destroyed every last weapon and smuggling tunnel, which they failed to do in 2008.

Soon after Mrs. Clinton's pronouncement, the White House issued a statement alluding to an American commitment to explore ways to more effectively police the perimeters of the Sinai Peninsula to prevent the weapons smuggling by Hamas and its allies from Iran that permitted such a "game-changing" missile offensive against Israel.

The Israeli embargo on the Gaza Strip had obviously failed to prevent the very military empowerment of Hamas that the blockade was principally intended to prevent.  So if the Israeli blockade did not accomplish its principal objective, what will be done by Israel and the U.S. about the Sinai sieve?  That is one of the tactical challenges embedded in this announcement and it will be very interesting what role, if any, the U.S. committed to play to better police the lawless, Egyptian-controlled Sinai.

Also, by signing onto its provisions Washington announced its commitment to promote the long-term durability of the agreement.  Secretary Clinton stated at her Cairo news conference the necessity of effective, ongoing diplomacy to prevent the agreement from unraveling.  Now on her way home and just about out the door -- Secretary Clinton is scheduled to leave her post when her successor is nominated.  Symbolically, she has enormous stature and respect in the region.  Diving into the deep cesspool of this latest Hamas Middle East crisis is the last thing she had in mind during her Asian victory lap; her willingness to hold onto this hot potato until she can safely and securely hand it off to her successor may be vital to the agreement's durability, even though I don't wish the task on her at all given the challenges it creates.  

Under the Rahm Emanuel adage to never fail to take advantage of a good crisis, President Obama has an unexpected window of opportunity to re-engage a sustained, high-level U.S. diplomacy to push direct Israeli-Palestinian negotiations out of its cryogenic state.  Nothing could energize this moment more than having the president enlist the best American Middle East deal-maker in the world -- former President Bill Clinton.   That is one lousy reward for President Clinton's 24/7 tireless campaigning for Obama's re-election, but no one other than Mrs. Clinton has the admiration and respect of all of the parties to force them out their dangerous diplomatic death spiral.

As I stated in my last column, the Obama administration has no Middle East front bench to speak of.  Its previous star players (George Mitchell and Dennis Ross) abandoned the playing field for their own respective reasons when neither could put any points on the board.  They gave it their best try, but kept going back to their old, shopworn playbooks and the Gaza crisis provies how critical a time it is for the U.S. to come up with new ideas, new strategies and new blood to get the U.S. back in the game to rescue the absolute necessity for a two-state solution -- a strategic interest to us as well as to our allies.  

As for Iran -- Hamas' principal arms supplier and state terrorist benefactor that pressed Hamas to launch this latest offensive in the first place -- what did it get out of this confrontation so far?  Quite a bit, I am afraid.  Although its Hamas missile transfer racket may face new obstacles, just imagine the ayatollahs' satisfaction as Arab adversaries of Iran rushed to Hamas' defense.  Moreover, it was Iran's missiles that were tested against Israel's Iron Dome anti-missile system.  Although Iron Dome was a godsend preventing Israeli civilian casualties, Iran's missile-meisters now have battlefield information how Iron Dome operates for what likely will be a more lethal next round.    

So the plot stays more or less the same -- destined, I am afraid to play itself out again but with more lethality given Iran's machinations and Hamas' embolden leaders.  During the crisis there were a slew of Middle East pundits who urged Israel to begin talking with Hamas as if Hamas deserved to be rewarded with an Israeli negotiator for blackmailing it with missile attacks.  The pundits talked of the need for Israel to face new realities and act more responsibly toward Hamas.

Now don't get me wrong.  I am all in favor of talking if there is a basis for negotiation otherwise fools' errands only delay hard choices.

Several years ago, I entered Gaza blindfolded and in a trunk of a car in order to meet with a fairly senior Hamas official.  I wanted to hear Hamas' positions from the horse's mouth, so to speak.  For hours, I listened to Hamas' representatives harangue against Jews -- spewing the a particularly virulent anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism normally echoing from other salafist and Islamic extremists I have encountered during my many years traversing the region. Just read Hamas' Arabic charter for amplification.  Can Hamas reengineer itself and moderate its resolute rejection of Israel's right to exist in any form?  Only Allah knows.  But nothing so far indicates that all of Hamas' Koran-stoked terrorism will be ejected from its warped sense of reality.

Before anyone gets too rambunctious about pressuring Israel to deal with Hamas, how about pressuring Hamas to first negotiate a viable accommodation with its Palestinian Authority and Fatah brethren first.  A united Palestinian leadership is essential to any viable Israeli-Palestinian negotiation.  Yet, on the margins of this crisis, and after years of inter-Arab mediation by Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the UAE, Hamas and the PA remain at loggerheads -- refusing to compromise on basis principles.  That says a great deal about whether Hamas can ever be expected to plausibly retreat from its refusal to accept Israel's right to exist.  Palestinians will need to make that choice, and American full-fledged diplomacy is crucial to compel Palestinians to make that choice.
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