The Search for an Israel-Hamas Mediator

Reports of a possibly Egypt-brokered mediation to end the Gaza crisis abound, but with Hamas and Israel focused on strikes and rockets, diplomacy doesn't really stand a chance.

A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el
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Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas  and Hamas' political chief Khaled Meshal are seen together during their meeting in Cairo, Egypt, Thursday, Nov. 24, 2011.
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Hamas' political chief Khaled Meshal are seen together during their meeting in Cairo, Egypt, Thursday, Nov. 24, 2011.Credit: AP
A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el

The back-channel dialogue between Hamas and Israel that has been going on over the past few days is perhaps more important than the exchanges of fire between them. Although on the Israeli side, we are talking out loud about punishing Hamas, about eliminating the "the terror infrastructure" and about "going to the very end," what is missing from the discourse are calls to eliminate the Hamas leadership. Quite the opposite. Israel, it seems, wants to leave the Hamas leadership standing. Israel will need someone to take responsibility for implementing the understandings after this operation ends, someone who will carry on fighting against rogue organizations like Islamic Jihad.

Hamas, meanwhile, has endlessly repeated a new complaint against Israel. "Israel has violated all the understandings from 2012," Ismail Haniyeh, the vice chairman of Hamas' political bureau, said regarding the agreements reached following Operation Pillar of Defense. This is an important claim, which shows that Hamas has no problem with admitting to having the basis of an understanding with Israel - something that even Israel isn't willing to admit to yet. Hamas, meanwhile, which is acting as if these understandings were an agreement between nations. Now, these understandings are like a home port that both Israel and Hamas want to return to. Israel wants to engage in dramatic punitive action, while Hamas is trying to minimize the damage done to it.

On this basis, mediation efforts are involving the U.S., the UN, Qatar and Egypt. UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon spoke Friday night with the Emir of Qatar Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry spoke with his Qatari counterpart, and everyone is talking with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sissi. According to one of report, Sissi is set to call a meeting on Saturday with the Qatari emir, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Hamas' Khaled Meshal and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in order to try and agree on an outline for a cease-fire. There is still no official confirmation for this report, but despite this, Egypt has responded to Kuwait's initiative to call a meeting of Arab League Foreign Ministers.

Hamas sources have said that the organization is setting conditions on returning to the understandings of 2012. Hamas is demanding international guarantees to uphold the understandings, as well as the release of security prisoners released in the 2011 Shalit prisoner swap deal, who were rearrested last month in the search for three Israeli teens kidnapped in the West Bank. Egypt's position is still vague. It is unclear, for example, whether Sissi is interested in Egyptian exclusivity in the mediation efforts, or whether he is aiming for a broad Arab agreement, especially after the failure of the previous efforts so that he can evade responsibility for a fresh failure. Egypt, however, holds the main lever of pressure on Hamas, in that it controls the Rafah border crossing, and because Hamas wants to heal ties with its southern neighbor. Sissi, however, is also subject to pressures at home, especially in the context of his political strategy, which made the battle against the Muslim Brotherhood a top priority.

Israel, meanwhile, is listening intently to the Egyptians, and not just when it comes to the Gaza operation. Cooperation between the two in the fight against terrorism in the Sinai Peninsula, and Egyptian control of the border it shares with Gaza, have resulted in an important meeting of interests. These may yet develop in the economic arena, perhaps affecting Israeli gas sales. If Israel decides that the time has come to apply understandings reached with Hamas, or if the Egyptian street erupt in response to the operation in Gaza, Egypt and Israel will be able to reach an agreement to end the fire according to terms set following Operation Pillar of Defense.

At the same time, understandings with Hamas, even if they are achieved with help from Egypt and without Abbas, are liable to highlight Israel's double diplomacy once more. Following the Palestinian reconciliation deal, Israel laid the blame for developments in Gaza on the deal, even though now this is a hollow responsibility. On the other hand, Israel still sees Hamas as exclusively responsible for what goes on in Gaza. Israel thwarted Abbas' responsibility when it said that it would not allow the transfer of funds to pay Hamas officials through Palestinian banks.

Meanwhile, its clear that any cease-fire agreement means dialogue, even if indirect, with Hamas. According to this, the mediation efforts are an important opportunity to strengthen Abbas' position, if he becomes the designated mediator, with Israeli and Egyptian backing. Instead of Khaled Meshal or Senior Hamas official Moussa Abu Marzouk getting the credit, Abbas could confirm his status as the man who could "save" Gaza. Israel's problem is that giving backing to Abbas in an arena in which Israel always tried to separate between Hamas and Fatah will look like recognition of Palestinian reconciliation, and will contradict the Israeli position against reconciliation. According to this, we will see whether Israel, absurdly, will prefer an agreement with Hamas as opposed to with a united Palestinian unity.

Mediation and understandings provide an opportunity for diplomatic gain, especially as the military targets and the definition of victory are vague. With Israel and Hamas busy with strikes and rockets, and the successes of Iron Dome as opposed to the success of Hamas in striking Tel Aviv, diplomatic success doesn't stand a chance.

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