Under different circumstances Israel could have held direct negotiations with the Palestinian delegation in Egypt. After all, it is headed by Azzam al-Ahmad, a member of Fatah, the representative of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, and someone with whom Israel has no problem coordinating a cease-fire. Moreover, representatives of Hamas and Islamic Jihad could have participated in the joint sessions, just as the Palestine Liberation Organization's representatives took part in the Jordanian delegation to the Madrid Conference in 1991, and also later in talks in Washington.
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Under different circumstances, Israel could have decided that its partner in Cairo is the unified Palestinian government, which would represent the positions of Hamas and the other organizations that signed off on the Palestinian reconciliation agreement.
But Israel's insistence on viewing the Palestinian unity government as a “terrorist entity,” or at the very least “a Hamas government,” has actually trapped it, and once again forced it into negotiating with Hamas and Islamic Jihad while pushing Abbas into the position of an observer who is not authorized to sign an accord, should one be reached.
The result is that the way the talks are conducted and their likely results – even if Hamas and its partners do not receive everything they want – will revive the standing of the Islamist group as the ruler in the Gaza Strip. It will also probably perpetuate the Strip's status as being a separate land from the West Bank.
This is the strategy Israel has taken for the eight years Hamas has ruled Gaza, underlying the claim in Jerusalem that Abbas does not represent both parts of Palestine. As a result, any agreement with him could not effectively dispel the threat to Israeli security.
The paradox here is that it is this strategy that provoked three rounds of fighting in Gaza and the dozens of incidents of hostilities that have broken out between Israel and the Palestinians in recent years. This is also what has lead to Israel's insistence in relating to the negotiations in Cairo as negotiations with Hamas – not with representatives of the unified Palestinian government.
As a result, when fundamental demands are made of Israel – such as opening of the border crossings, reinstating the overland connection between the West Bank and Gaza, rehabilitating the Strip or building a port – Israel relates to the demands as coming from Hamas, and not as appropriate Palestinian requests that are supported by many countries, including Egypt.
The result is that these demands are included in the profit-and-loss statement of Operation Protective Edge, whereby agreement to any one of them will be seen as a defeat for Israel and a victory for Hamas.
This is the axis around which the current talks in Cairo are revolving. While the Egyptian goal is to reach a truce at minimal cost to itself, Israel aspires to achieve its victory by denying the demands of Hamas, and the Palestinian Authority is a virtually nonexistent entity whose only role is procedural.
Israel's decision to condition the holding of talks on a cease-fire, its demand to supervise any incoming construction materials and funding used to rehabilitate Gaza, its objection in principle to building a port, and its call to demilitarize the Gaza Strip – all have been characterized by Egypt as “matters that relate to a peace accord and not to a cease-fire agreement per se.”
Egypt actually aimed these words at Hamas, since like Jerusalem, Cairo too is trying to reach a practical and immediate interim agreement – with the organization and not with the PA.
Egypt’s willingness to open the Rafah crossing on the condition that PA personnel are stationed there is part of the same issue. Its goal is to minimize Hamas’ achievements, to prevent the organization from forcing undesirable conditions upon Egypt that could erode its monopoly over the border crossing into Sinai, and from there to the entire world – and to preserve Gaza as an area under supervision and guard, separate from the West Bank.
It is no coincidence that Egypt and Israel’s interests combine here, since they both view Hamas in the same way. But as opposed to Israel, Egypt sees the Palestinian unity government as a responsible body which it is willing to trust – both when it comes to controlling the Rafah crossing and also in terms of overseeing the rehabilitation of Gaza. And also as opposed to Israel, Egypt has already derived some benefit from the hostilities.