Indications are mounting that the indirect Israeli-Palestinian cease-fire talks in Cairo could be heading for failure, possibly resulting in renewed fighting when the current 5-day truce expires Monday night.
Early reports were that the two sides were close to agreement on an Egyptian compromise proposal for a long-term cease-fire. On Friday and Saturday, however, declarations on both sides indicated that positions were hardening as fierce internal divisions emerged, pulling the leaderships on both sides away from the center. The Palestinian side appears to be stymied by the refusal of the organization’s Qatar-based political secretary, Khaled Meshaal, and the head of its military wing, Mohammed Deif, to go along with the compromise proposals laid out by the Egyptians and mostly accepted by both delegations.
On the Israeli side, meanwhile, chaos appears to be reigning. Prime Minister Netanyahu, who rode a wave of popularity during the military operation, has been facing a tsunami of criticism over the past week from the left, the right, the residents of Gaza-adjacent communities and his top coalition ministers. Two of his senior coalition partners, foreign minister Avigdor Liberman of the Yisrael Beiteinu party and economics minister Naftali Bennett of the Jewish Home party, have repeatedly attacked the prime minister’s management of the Gaza conflict from the right, demanding a continuing assault until Gaza has been taken over and Hamas disarmed or dismantled. Broad circles on the right accuse him of giving away the store (i.e. lifting the blockade) in return for “nothing” (i.e. Hamas-Jihad agreement not to shoot, bombard or tunnel).
The other coalition partners, justice minister Tzipi Livni of Hatnuah and finance minister Yair Lapid of Yesh Atid, have been pressing Netanyahu from the left, demanding that he seek to end the fighting by convening an international Middle East peace conference in cooperation with the Arab League. The goal of the conference would be to negotiate an agreement for an independent Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza. Netanyahu hasn’t said no to either minister, by some accounts because he’ll need their votes in the cabinet for the limited cease-fire he’s aiming to obtain in Cairo.
Livni and Bennett have also attacked the Cairo cease-fire negotiations on principle, saying the process amounts to Israel negotiating with Hamas despite its international status as a terrorist organization and effectively gives the Islamist group diplomatic legitimacy. Both also complain that the Egyptian proposal for a long-term cease-fire, by guaranteeing Gaza’s border, would constrain Israel’s ability to reply to terrorist actions from Gaza while failing to prevent Hamas and other terrorist groups from rearming and mounting attacks.
Under the Egyptian proposal, the Palestinian factions in Gaza, principally Hamas and Islamic Jihad, would agree to refrain from all attacks on Israel by land, air and sea, and to refrain from digging tunnels into Israeli territory.
Hamas fighters testing a Gaza-made M-75 long-range missile, November 2013 / Getty Images
Maariv’s Eli Bardenstein offered a stunningly clear and disturbing report (in Hebrew, my translation below) on Friday that illustrates the vexing complications introduced into the triangular Jerusalem-Cairo-Gaza relationship by political turmoil in all three places. It makes a very useful companion piece to today’s front-page New York Times report by Jodi Rudoren on Israeli jitters over instability on its eastern front.
In both cases, as Bardenstein notes and Rudoren sort of hints, the Netanyahu government is ignoring the intelligence supplied by its own security establishment, which shows jihadi organizations making life difficult for both Hezbollah in the north and Hamas in the south. The jihadis are creating turmoil, launching pinprick attacks on Israel that violate cease-fire agreements between Israel and Hezbollah and Hamas respectively. Hamas and Hezbollah are both besieged — Hamas by the new, anti-Islamist Egyptian military government, Hezbollah by jihadi spillover from the Syrian civil war (as well as political blowback from the Rafiq Hariri murder trial now underway in The Hague) — and are finding it increasingly difficult to enforce their respective cease-fires with Israel. Israel — meaning principally defense minister Moshe Yaalon — chooses to ignore the intelligence, blame Hamas and Hezbollah and launch military responses that only further weaken Hamas and Hezbollah and strengthen the jihadis.
I’ve translated Bardenstein’s piece below, but here’s the gist: Israel is alarmed at the unraveling of the November 2012 Pillar of Defense cease-fire “understandings” and the increasing rocket fire from Gaza — 17 rockets fired in January alone as of Friday (and more since then). It wants Egypt, which acts as mediator between Israel and Hamas, to pressure Hamas to stop the rocket fire. But Egypt has lost influence over Hamas since the military deposed the Muslim Brotherhood government of Mohamed Morsi last July. The military government’s approach is not to work with Hamas as Morsi did but to crack down on it.
Hamas, in turn, complains that the Egyptian crackdown — particularly the mass destruction of smuggling tunnels, which squeezes the Gaza economy — weakens Hamas rule and reduces its ability to control the jihadi organizations that are doing the firing. And both Cairo and Hamas complain that Israel has been making the situation worse by Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon’s insistence on responding to every single rocket launching, no matter how ineffectual, with aerial bombardment.
Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas told a visiting group of Knesset members on Thursday that an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement will mean an end to Palestinian demands from Israel, and that Palestinians did not aim to return to “Haifa, Acre and Safed.” As the British Guardian newspaper reported:
In remarks possibly aimed at reassuring Israelis who believe a peace deal with the Palestinians will be followed by further claims, Abbas said: “You have a commitment from the Palestinian people, and also from the leadership, that if we are offered a just agreement, we will sign a peace deal that will put an end to the conflict and to future demands from the Palestinian side.”
He also said that the Palestinian state did not need a military capacity, but only “a strong police force.” He was speaking in Ramallah to the members of the Meretz Knesset caucus.
Abbas said critics had misunderstood his July 29 statement in Cairo that “in a final resolution” to the conflict there would not be “a single Israeli – civilian or soldier – on our lands.” Right-wing groups including the Zionist Organization of America and the Simon Wiesenthal Center jumped on the remark as evidence of anti-Semitism, and the Knesset’s anti-Semitism caucus discussed it at a meeting the following day. Abbas said his point had been that the Palestinian state would be established as a newly sovereign entity and would not agree to inherit prepositioned Israeli soldiers or settlers on its territory as relics of occupation.
This is not a new position. Abbas and other Palestinian leaders have said in the past that once their state is established, Jews would be welcome like anyone else to apply for residency or citizenship in a Palestinian state. They describe leaving settlements in place as risky because many settlers are committed to Israeli sovereignty over the territories and are considered likely to resist Palestinian rule. Still, Abbas told the Knesset members he would be prepared to discuss leaving individual settlements in place if Israel brought it up in negotiations.
Abbas’s remarks seem intended to dispel the Israeli right’s laundry list of reasons for believing the Palestinians are not prepared to make peace. Skeptics claim Abbas and his Fatah movement are not ready to declare a final end to the conflict, that they’re unwilling to give up future claims to Israeli territory, abandon the Palestinian refugees’ right of return to their former homes or accept limitations on sovereignty such as demilitarization. Abbas dismissed all those claims, one by one.
He further told the visitors, Haaretz on Friday, that he was “unhappy with the slow pace of the negotiations” and that there had been “no advances” in the first three rounds of talks, which were predictably devoted to presenting existing positions. But he voiced hope that the pace would pick up. According to Haaretz, he said:
Hints of clouds behind the silver linings: The Cairo mob that attacked CBS News correspondent Lara Logan last Friday was yelling “Jew! Jew!” the New York Post reports, citing CBS sources.
”60 Minutes” correspondent Lara Logan was repeatedly sexually assaulted by thugs yelling, “Jew! Jew!” as she covered the chaotic fall of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in Cairo’s main square Friday, CBS and sources said yesterday.
Nor was it just the mob, the Post says.
…the day before, Logan had told Esquire.com that Egyptian soldiers hassling her and her crew had accused them of “being Israeli spies.” Logan is not Jewish.
Also, the Jerusalem Post reports today that one of the democracy groups negotiating with the military, the April 6 Youth Movement, is demanding that gas shipments to Israel be halted.
All of which suggests that t’s a good idea to be optimistic about the outcome of the Egyptian revolution and not lose one’s sense of humanity, but it’s way too early to be confident. Egypt isn’t Iran, but it has its own quirks.