Behind the Scenes of the Short-lived Cease-fire

While the Egyptians hammered out a deal with Netanyahu, Hamas and most of the Israeli cabinet were kept out of the loop.

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Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah al-Sissi, right, discussing the Gaza-Israel conflict with Tony Blair,  Quartet rep to the Middle East, on July 12.
Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah al-Sissi, right, discussing the Gaza-Israel conflict with Tony Blair, Quartet rep to the Middle East, on July 12. Credit: Reuters

The Egyptian cease-fire proposal that was published Monday night took most members of the diplomatic-security cabinet by complete surprise. Economy Minister Naftali Bennett heard about it in a television studio moments before going on air. Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman heard about it on the radio.

A senior Israeli official said Lieberman knew that talks were being held with the Egyptians, but had no idea a proposal was being finalized. Upon hearing the news, he realized that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon, who were running the talks, had left him out of the loop.

Over the previous few days, the cease-fire talks had proceeded lackadaisically. The Egyptians didn’t demonstrate great interest in advancing the process, and independent initiatives like that of Quartet envoy Tony Blair never got off the ground.

All that changed at about noon on Monday, when U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, then in Vienna for talks with Iran about its nuclear program, launched a marathon of phones calls with Netanyahu, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shukri and others.

Senior Israeli officials said that in every phone call that day, Kerry offered to fly immediately to Cairo, and perhaps even Jerusalem, to try to advance a cease-fire. But Egyptians and Israelis both politely rejected that offer, telling Kerry they are already in direct contact and didn’t need American mediation.

Cairo objected to Kerry coming because it wanted to show that President Abdel-Fattah al-Sissi’s new government was capable of playing Egypt’s traditional diplomatic role with regard to Gaza without outside help. Jerusalem objected because it thought Kerry’s arrival would be interpreted as American pressure on Israel, and thus as an achievement for Hamas.

Ironically, however, Kerry’s pressure to fly in pushed Egypt and Israel to accelerate their own efforts to craft a cease-fire proposal. A senior Israeli official said the Egyptian proposal essentially adopted the ideas raised by Abbas several days earlier. Abbas had suggested that the Egyptians first declare an end to hostilities by both sides, and then begin detailed negotiations over various issues related to Gaza, such as easing restrictions on its border crossings with both Egypt and Israel.

The final proposal was drafted by Egyptian intelligence in cooperation with the Egyptian Foreign Ministry. The Israeli negotiating team was comprised mainly of senior defense officials, plus Netanyahu’s envoy Isaac Molho. The Foreign Ministry was quarantined; not a single Israeli diplomat was included on the team.

A senior Israeli official said most of the negotiations over the cease-fire took place between Egypt and Israel.

Hamas left out

Palestinian factions in the Gaza Strip were also surprised to learn of the Egyptian cease-fire proposal, especially Hamas, which still views itself as the sovereign in Gaza.

All the factions knew that talks about a cease-fire were taking place, but they had expected Egyptian intelligence to fully coordinate any serious proposal with them, as had been the case in the past. They did not expect to hear about it from the media – nor did they expect that Egypt would coordinate with Israel but not with them.

The first Hamas response came from the organization's spokesman in Gaza, Sami Abu Zuhri, who assailed the proposal and termed it capitulation to Israel. Senior Hamas official Mushir al-Masri echoed this, saying the proposal laid the ground for Israel's continued control of all the levers of power over Gaza.

Next, the military organizations weighed in, first and foremost Hamas' own military wing. They, too, termed the proposal a capitulation to Israel, and voiced vehement opposition to a cease-fire unless their demands were met – first and foremost ending the blockade of Gaza and releasing all the prisoners freed in the 2011 exchange for kidnapped soldier Gilad Shalit who have been rearrested over the last few weeks.

A few hours later, however, Islamic Jihad – which is normally even more militant than Hamas – officially announced that it had accepted the cease-fire. It was expected to issue a statement later saying that its position had been coordinated with Hamas.

In contrast, the Palestinian Authority termed the Egyptian proposal vital, as it would stop what it described as Israel's "aggression" and enable negotiations on the terms of a more lasting truce.

Palestinian sources said Tuesday's escalation was undoubtedly meant to improve Hamas' negotiating position against both Egypt and Israel.

When a member of the Israeli team asked whether Hamas would agree to the terms of the initiative, the Egyptians tried to reassure him, saying that if Israel agreed, Hamas would have no choice but to do the same.

In reality, the opposite occurred. The Egyptians gave Hamas’ political leadership minimal information and didn’t communicate with members of its military wing at all. The internal disputes between these two wings further contributed to the confusion, and to Hamas’ feeling that Egypt was pulling a fast one.

When the diplomatic-security cabinet met Tuesday morning, there was no real discussion of the Egyptian proposal. Netanyahu, one minister said, presented the proposal as a fait accompli to which no changes were possible.

“The general idea was that if the Egyptians had issued a cease-fire proposal, it would be inappropriate for Israel to reject it,” said one minister. “Netanyahu and Ya’alon told us this is an opportunity to strengthen the alliance with Egypt, and a positive response to the Egyptian proposal would earn us a lot of brownie points internationally and increased legitimacy to expand the operation against Hamas if needed. This was true and logical, and most of the ministers were convinced. But a few hours later, we discovered we’d made a cease-fire agreement with ourselves.”

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