Far from the public’s eye, negotiations are happening that could, under certain conditions, effect an important change on the Palestinian front. The indirect talks between Israel and Hamas on a long-term cease-fire in the Gaza Strip, which have been reported primarily in the Arab media, are ultimately likely to produce an agreement. Such a deal, if achieved, would significantly affect the balance of power among Israel, Hamas and the Palestinian Authority, and could also affect the close ties between Israel and Egypt.
The talks have been conducted intermittently for months. Media reports say numerous intermediaries are involved, including officials from the United Nations, Europe and Qatar. Thus the talks are happening via several different channels, with only partial coordination among them.
The goal is to extract a commitment to a humanitarian cease-fire from Hamas, perhaps accompanied by third-party guarantees. Hamas would promise to refrain from any hostilities against Israel for a given period, possibly three to five years. In exchange, Israel would significantly ease its partial blockade on Gaza and take other steps to help Gaza’s economy. Later – though this seems unlikely – Israel might even reconsider ideas it has rejected in the past, like letting a seaport be built in Gaza under external supervision.
Such a deal could appeal to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, because it would enable him to portray last summer’s war in Gaza as a long-term achievement instead of a highly controversial, unfinished job. Just as former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert retroactively defended a much worse war, the Second Lebanon War of 2006, by boasting of the quiet on the northern border since then, Netanyahu could retroactively justify the Gaza war on similar grounds and say Hamas’ agreement to a long-term cease-fire proved that Israel won.
An indirect deal wouldn’t require Netanyahu to make any major concessions like recognizing Hamas or ceding territory. Moreover, it would enable him to outflank PA President Mahmoud Abbas and rebut some of the international criticism of his lack of movement on the Palestinian front. And if Netanyahu thinks tensions with Hezbollah might lead to war in the coming years, a long-term cease-fire in Gaza would temporarily relieve the army of a headache and let it focus on the far more dangerous enemy to the north.
Hamas’ political leadership in Gaza apparently favors a deal. After three military conflicts against Israel in less than six years, each of which wreaked devastation in Gaza, it seems unlikely that Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh and his colleagues would want another round anytime soon. Khaled Meshal, the Qatar-based head of Hamas’ political wing, also seems to have moderated the hardline positions he took during the war a bit; this might be connected to the rapprochement between Hamas’ political wing and Saudi Arabia.
At the moment, Hamas seems readier to accept a deal than Israel is. Some Israeli defense officials think it’s better to continue the status quo, with minor changes, than to tie Israel’s hands with rigid obligations.
But in any case, numerous obstacles remain. The PA objects vehemently, fearing a deal would bolster Hamas at its expense and perpetuate the freeze in its own talks with Israel; this has been reflected in the West Bank’s negative press coverage of the emerging deal. Ramallah accuses Hamas of abandoning the demand for a solution to the Palestinian problem and of acquiescing in the separation of Gaza from the West Bank.
Egypt, which recently deferred legal proceedings for declaring Hamas an illegal terrorist organization, also remains skeptical of Hamas’ intentions.
But the principle obstacle is Hamas’ military wing. On Wednesday, the Israeli media reported that military wing leader Mohammed Deif, who survived an Israeli assassination attempt during last summer’s war, had resumed full-time activity. Deif dragged Israel and Hamas into the last conflict by planning a tunnel attack near Kerem Shalom in early July, then escalating after the army thwarted the attack.
Since the military wing is currently at loggerheads with the political leadership and has also renewed its ties to Iran, one can confidently assume it isn’t enthusiastic about the idea of a long-term truce. Thus, as the negotiations progress, the chances of the military wing launching attacks on Israel in an effort to thwart it increase.
The military wing is working hard to restore its operational capabilities, which suffered substantial damage during the war and have also been harmed by Egypt’s clampdown on arms smuggling to Gaza. Though Hamas is now churning out its own rockets in Gaza, they don’t match the capabilities of the arms it used to smuggle from Iran. But rebuilding its network of attack tunnels has proved easier, and it’s reasonable to assume Hamas will try to use them if another war breaks out.
Over the past week, defense officials’ attention has been focused less on Gaza than on the northern front. A series of incidents near the Syrian border – an airstrike in Syria attributed to Israel, another for which Israel has denied responsibility, an attempt by Syrian Druze to lay bombs along the border that ended with Israel killing them, stray mortar fire into Israel from the Syrian civil war – have reignited sleeping fears of the impact of the four-year-old civil war on Israel.
In reality, it doesn’t seem like anything substantive has changed from Israel’s perspective. So far, Hezbollah and Syria have refrained from responding directly to the airstrike on arms warehouses near the Syria-Lebanon border, which was attributed to Israel. The Druze bombers came from territory controlled by the Syrian regime, but it’s doubtful this was a direct response by Hezbollah to the airstrike. Nor has Hezbollah made any public comment on the recent incidents.
Nevertheless, Israel has other good reasons for keeping an especially close eye on the north right now. Hezbollah has recently renewed its efforts to smuggle high-tech weaponry from Syria, especially more precise missiles and rockets.
This decision is apparently tied to the Assad regime’s shifting fortunes in Syria. The regime has suffered numerous setbacks in the past two months. It has lost important towns in northern Syria and is also absorbing attacks from rebel groups near Damascus. All this is making Hezbollah nervous.
If Assad’s situation continues to worsen – and some Western experts say it’s already the worst it has been in about three years – Hezbollah will have a double incentive to expand its arms smuggling. First, if critical areas are in danger of falling to the rebels (major arms warehouses near the Damascus airport, or territory along the Lebanese border, where the smuggling takes place), the organization will fear it’s liable to permanently lose access to Syrian supplies. Second, though the Assad regime currently seems unlikely to collapse, if it did, Shi’ite Hezbollah would feel more threatened than ever by Sunni organizations in Lebanon, as well as by Israel.
Thus it seems as if Hezbollah wants more sophisticated weaponry less to alter the balance of power with Israel, as Israeli defense officials say, than to maintain its existing level of deterrence against both Israel and other regional enemies. After all, the relative quiet on the Israel-Lebanon border of the past nine years is primarily due to mutual deterrence: the understanding that another war would cause major damage to both sides.