Recent experience shows that the 72-hour Gaza cease-fire announced on Monday night could fall apart within minutes, but the difference this time around is that all the main protagonists are on the verge of collapse, in one form or another. Hamas leaders, experts say, are close to military collapse; the residents of Gaza, eyewitnesses claim, are on the brink of a humanitarian collapse; and the Israeli government, whether it knows it or not, stands perilously close to a public relations and diplomatic collapse.
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Of course, the government will have to do some slick maneuvering now to explain what seems to be a glaring discrepancy between Prime Minister Netanyahu’s assertion on Saturday night that Israel is disengaging from talks on the cease-fire and the negotiations that it clandestinely conducted nonetheless, along with those that it is slated to hold publicly in the next few days in Cairo.
But that’s nothing compared to the political challenge of reconciling Israel’s public’s fervent wish to see Hamas crushed and defeated and its emergence as a partner, albeit an indirect one, in discussions on Gaza’s future. And even that hurdle pales in comparison with the potential threat of contending with the international community’s newfound ambition to leverage the weakness of Hamas and the suffering of Gazans in order to bolster Mahmoud Abbas and to resuscitate the moribund Israeli-Palestinian peace process.
This is the price that Israel will ultimately be asked to pay, not only by Western governments, including the U.S., but by its newfound regional buddies, including Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia. It is one thing for these countries to publicly confront the discredited Hamas and quite another to be seen as sacrificing the interests of the Palestinians in order to cozy up with the Jews. Driven by the additional outrage likely to be sparked by the Gaza carnage that may come to light after quiet is restored, Arab and European governments are poised to press for new diplomatic initiatives. Even Secretary Kerry may get reengaged, if he succeeds in convincing Obama, once again, that the trouble is worth it.
One thing is for sure: from the point of view of Israel’s international standing, a cease-fire can’t come a moment too soon. It’s hard to determine exactly when a red line is crossed, but there can be no doubt that Israel was coming perilously close to the edge from the point of view of its international image and stature. A step or two farther and it would be facing the specter of the “Goldstonization” of Operation Protective Edge which would emulate the controversial 2009 Goldstone report after Operation Cast Lead - as well as the threat of an international campaign, yet to be completely averted, for an investigation of war crimes.
The straw that broke this camel’s back was Sunday’s shelling of the UNRWA school in Rafah, the seventh such mishap since the war began. The incident sparked a serious deterioration in the tone of U.S. criticism of Israel, from the State Department, which described the attack as “disgraceful”, to Obama aide Valerie Jarret, who called it “indefensible” and all the way to the much esteemed UN envoy and anti-genocide advocate Samantha Powers, who described it as “horrific”.
The fallout was compounded on Monday morning by the implications of a damning New York Times’ investigation of last week’s bombardment of the school and UN shelter in Jabaliya. The report, prominently displayed both in print and on the web, found that “Israeli troops paid little heed to warnings to safeguard such sites [of refuge] and may have unleashed weapons inappropriate for urban areas despite rising alarm over civilian deaths.” The paper found evidence that the school had been hit with 155 mm Israeli artillery shells, which are deemed to be accurate if they land within 50 meters of their intended target.
Such criticism enrages most Israelis, who view it as one-sided and misinformed and willfully indifferent to the long line of justifications that Jerusalem cites in its defense. What Israelis are finding hard to grasp is that for the past month they have been living in a parallel universe to most of the rest of the world. While most Israeli media have provided their consumers with only the briefest of glimpses of death and destruction on the Palestinian side, the rest of the world, including America, has been subjected to ever-increasing doses of scenes of horrendous suffering in Gaza. In today’s Twitter- and social-media-dominated world, the impact of such gruesome scenes spreads wider and multiplies faster than ever before.
Just before the cease-fire was announced, all the injurious elements appeared to be coming together to create a critical mass that threatened to launch a chain reaction that could have brought about a diplomatic meltdown for Israel, not in the distant future but just a few hours away. A cease-fire, if it holds, comes in the nick of time.