The hours of Wednesday night were described by Azzam al-Ahmad, the Palestinian delegation leader in Cairo, as “the most critical hours.” If they didn’t produce an agreement, he warned, the Palestinian delegation might be forced to return to consult with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. “Consultation,” in this case, meant a drastic change, at the very least an indefinite postponement of the negotiations. On the other hand, Egyptian officials, who had been relaying optimistic messages of late, believed that the progress and the agreements reached regarding principles were encouraging, and could lead to the extension of both the talks and the 72-hour cease-fire, which runs out Wednesday at midnight.
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In the meantime, as these lines were written, the negotiations were stuck in the balance between no agreement and no fighting, as each side was compelled to consider its actions in the case an agreement proved impossible to achieve.
On the military front, Israel had made it clear that the response to any fire from the Gaza Strip would be “unprecedented.” Hamas, for its part, continued to declare it would continue “standing strong” and launch missiles at all of Israel. But in contrast with the conflict that began this war, which escalated from “quiet for quiet” to “a war on the tunnels,” if fighting were to resume this time, the goal on both sides would be a return to the point at which the talks stalled in Cairo.
A renewal of fire was only one option, however. Others included a cease-fire in the absence of an agreement, meant to preserve the status quo. In that scenario, Hamas would lose on the diplomatic front. It wouldn’t be able to make demands. Border crossings would open only to humanitarian aid, Gaza wouldn’t be rebuilt anytime soon, there wouldn’t be any easing on fishing restrictions, nor would any prisoners be released.
Israel could lose out, too
But Israel too, could lose out in such a situation. It would be forced to remain on high alert; Israelis living near Gaza wouldn’t be able to return home, and the world pressure to ease the blockade on Gaza would continue to mount, regardless of the fact that there was no agreement.
Neither could Israel be sure that Egypt would keep the Rafah crossing closed, as the Egyptian government has already stated that this is a Palestinian-Egyptian matter only, in which Israel has no say. Hamas might agree to Palestinian Authority supervision of the crossings, which would make irrelevant the Egyptians’ reasons for keeping the crossings closed. This scenario would make entry and exit from Gaza to Israel impossible, but the Strip wouldn’t remain completely cut off, thus making the blockade less relevant.
Yet another option depends on Abbas’ position. He currently represents the claims of all the Palestinian factions, and the failure to reach an agreement could hurt him, too. The absence of a deal would dash his hopes of crawling back to Gaza, agreement in hand, and deploying PA forces along the border and at the crossings. On the other hand, if he claims that Hamas brought down the negotiations – a claim that might have legs – it would torpedo the Hamas-Fatah reconciliation and the unity government it led to.
In any case, if Abbas continued sponsoring the talks, mostly because Egypt wouldn’t agree to talk with Hamas alone, he could be stuck in a meaningless role if the talks failed to bear fruit. Without Abbas, PA security forces won’t return to Gaza, and PA control in Gaza would become nothing more than a dream once again, with Hamas continuing to hold a veto over every government decision, if Abbas were to even make it back to the table. He would find himself captive in the alleyways of Gaza, even with his presidential title.
The various problems stemming from the talks in Cairo have driven all sides, save for Egypt, into a big gridlock. A sudden move in any one direction would cause a chain-reaction collision. No one side can, or wants to, advance faster than the others, and no side can yet boast victory. It seems that any possible breakthrough depends on the nuances in the wording, rather than any essential issues. For example, if Hamas could get an agreement in which Israel allows a port in Gaza to open in the indeterminate future, or if Israel agreed to wording that eased restrictions on trade and movement, Hamas could declare a small victory without harming the essence of Israel’s position.
In any event, this is the first time Israel is negotiating, even indirectly, with Hamas on issues other than prisoner exchanges. They’re discussing permanent arrangements, the kind that are made between states.