Israel Is Hard-pressed to Offset Hamas Gains in Jerusalem

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A Muslim worshipper wears a Hamas flag during a protest in the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound on Friday.
A Muslim worshipper wears a Hamas flag during a protest in the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound on Friday.Credit: Mahmoud Illean / AP

The diplomatic efforts being made by U.S. President Joe Biden to bring about a cease-fire are being blocked for now by both Israel and Hamas. Hamas is demanding an achievement in Jerusalem, while Israel believes it hasn’t yet achieved its objectives, without specifying what they are.

According to reports based on what Hamas leaders are saying, the organization is insisting that any cease-fire be simultaneous, while Israel is demanding a gap in which it can continue to attack. That’s not the only disagreement. It seems as if both sides are seeking tactical achievements. Israel is looking to check off as many Gaza targets as possible, Hamas is demanding that Israel remove its forces from the Temple Mount and prevent the eviction of the Arab families in Sheikh Jarrah. But practically speaking each side is seeking to turn its tactical demands into diplomatic accomplishments.

Hamas, now perceived as attempting to save Jerusalem, has succeeded in excluding the Palestinian Authority and Jordan from their status as landlords; they are not involved in the negotiations on a cease-fire, they do not represent the Palestinian national demands that involve the holy places and they are continuing to be invisible to both Israel and Hamas. The campaign Israel is conducting against Hamas isn’t going to change that perception, even if Israel doesn’t yield anything with regard to Jerusalem.

If in the past there was some chance of coming to agreements with the PA about Jerusalem and designating the eastern section of the city as the Palestinian capital, this option was crushed twice, once by former U.S. President Donald Trump, when he recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and believed that with this he had taken Jerusalem off the agenda, and the second time when Hamas took the role of savior upon itself. From this perspective, the destruction of physical targets in Gaza – public buildings, command centers, tunnels – and the assassination of senior officials, which to Israelis seem like impressive achievements, are not symmetrical and cannot offset Hamas’ definition of victory.

Theoretically, if Israel had entered negotiations with Jordan or the PA on new arrangements on the Temple Mount and thus denied Hamas the impression of a political gain, it could have sufficed with the destruction it has rained on Gaza, and framed it as a broad retaliation for the missile fire on Jerusalem and later on other parts of Israel. But at the stage at which the campaign is now, holding such talks are a diplomatic impossibility; they will look like a capitulation to Hamas pressure.

On the other hand, without such negotiations, Jerusalem will continue to be the focus of the conflict between Israel and Hamas, a development that plays right into the hands of the Israeli right and into Hamas’ hands by virtue of it being an insurmountable obstacle to any future negotiations. If the Israeli government is seeking a political and diplomatic achievement, it lies here.

The problem is that the continuation of the campaign in Gaza and its slide into the West Bank, the flare-up of terror incidents, civil uprisings and clashes on West Bank streets are liable to endanger another fundamental element that Netanyahu has built on over the years: The political separation between Gaza and the West Bank.

That physical, economic and political separation was crucial to blocking any chance of advancing a peace process, on grounds that the PA does not represent all the Palestinians, doesn’t control Gaza and Hamas and therefore there’s no point in negotiating with it or signing any agreement that in any case would only apply to half the Palestinian population. Netanyahu managed to market this theory successfully to U.S. administrations, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Morocco and other Arab countries.

Egypt had already, back in President Hosni Mubarak’s day, stopped trying to find a comprehensive diplomatic solution after it prevailed upon Yasser Arafat to sign the Oslo Accords. Jordan is making do with the special status given to it at Jerusalem’s holy places; in all later political processes it has simply responded to events. Amman wasn’t even part of the consultations when Trump’s “deal of the century” was formulated. In recent years the Jordanians’ primary fear has been that Saudi Arabia would seize control of the holy places and exclude them. The tense relationship between Amman and Jerusalem has not stopped the bilateral security cooperation but diplomatic coordination has disintegrated. Jordan may have still have had some influence on government decisions four years ago when Israel installed metal detectors on the Temple Mount, but this time it has been totally neutralized.

The group of nations that recently signed peace agreements with Israel also find themselves in a complex diplomatic dilemma. When the UAE signed its normalization agreement with Israel, Crown Prince Mohamed bin Zayed explained that the agreement would serve the Palestinian interest, serve the cause of peace, and especially would foil Israel’s plan to annex parts of the West Bank. The PA and Hamas rejected this explanation, and the PA even refused to take humanitarian aid from the UAE and recalled its ambassador from Abu Dhabi for a time.

Abu Dhabi has had a lukewarm response to the events in Gaza and Jerusalem. It expressed concern that developments could put the region at risk, but didn’t take any measures like recalling its ambassador from Tel Aviv, while at the same time it didn’t condemn Hamas. Saudi Arabia and Morocco took similar positions; only Jordan adopted sharp rhetoric against Israel, with Jordanian MPs calling to expel Israel’s ambassador in Amman and recall the Jordanian ambassador from Tel Aviv.

Egypt, with successes under its belt in helping to arrange cease-fires between Israel and Hamas, continues to play the role of “honest broker” who can talk to both sides. But Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the Emirates are much more concerned about Hamas’ political power than of the sponsorship it has adopted over Jerusalem. Over this question there have been disputes among these Arab allies.

Egypt has been making an unceasing effort to bring about a reconciliation between Fatah and Hamas, an effort that finally resulted in an agreement to hold the Palestinian elections that were cancelled last month by order of PA President Mahmoud Abbas. Egypt believes that its economic influence in Gaza, along with Israel’s control of the West Bank, would neutralize any mischief by Hamas, which would be forced to operate in a broader Palestinian framework.

But Saudi Arabia, which has had bitter experiences with Hamas, and the Emirates, which view Hamas as a branch of the Muslim Brotherhood, disagree with Egypt. They believe that reconciliation in general and elections in particular are a threat that might leave them facing a Hamas government, which would encourage Islamic radicals in its territory and undermine the legitimacy of the PA.

The Arab countries’ considerations and interests don’t much concern Israel, which continues to assess that any political or military development in Gaza and the West Bank will always be under control, based on the well-known slogan that Israel is prepared for any scenario. Until something unexpected happens, like rocket fire on Jerusalem, that pulls it into Gaza by gravitational force.

The problem is that a tactical success, if there is one, will leave piles of ruins that someone is going to have to pay to rebuild before the ruins themselves turn into a new reason for confrontation. That’s what happened with the “March of Return” protests along the Gaza fence, which grew out of the inability of Hamas to pay salaries. As usual, however, everyone thinks about the day after only when it comes.

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