Talks between Hamas and the Palestinian Authority are expected to resume Sunday or Monday, as part of the attempt to reach a significant agreement on the Gaza Strip. Over the weekend the protests along the Gaza border were much less violent. Israeli defense officials are expected to decide soon whether to lift their restrictions on the use of the Erez border crossing.
The army estimates that only around 6,000 Palestinians took part in Friday’s demonstrations, the lowest number since the protests began on March 30. No one was hurt on the Israeli side. The Palestinian Health Ministry reported that dozens of people were wounded by snipers or tear gas.
In fact, over the last two weeks, against the backdrop of negotiations for a long-term cease-fire and with the approaching Eid al-Adha holiday, the violence at the protests declined. The number of fires set by incendiary kites and balloons also dropped.
After the recent escalation between Israel and Hamas subsided two and a half weeks ago, Israel reopened the Kerem Shalom crossing for bringing goods into Gaza, and approved an extension of the fishing zone off Gaza. Later, with the clashes along the fence, Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman decided to close the Erez crossing except for humanitarian cases. Now, with relative calm prevailing, it’s likely that Lieberman will rescind this decision, but it’s unclear when.
The party trying to accelerate negotiations now that Eid is over is the UN Middle East envoy, Nickolay Mladenov. He’s expected to take on a new role as the secretary-general’s envoy to Syria, even though it was thought he might serve in both roles. In any case, he aims to reach an agreement in Gaza as quickly as possible.
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The main problem, however, is the animosity between Hamas and the PA. So far, no alternative method of transferring funds to Gaza has been found other than through the PA. President Mahmoud Abbas continues to impose harsh demands on Hamas and is in no rush to join an agreement, despite pressure by the United Nations and the Egyptian intelligence service.
In the meantime, Lieberman is trying to distance himself from the negotiations. On a Friday visit with local-council heads near the Gaza border, the defense minister said: “Regarding all the stories about an agreement, I have nothing to do with it; I am not involved in the whole issue. I do not believe in it, the only agreement is the reality on the ground.” This sounds like a reaction to criticism heaped on him by his rival, Education Minister Naftali Bennett, who opposes an indirect deal with Hamas.
Lieberman is leaving the negotiations to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the man conducting them in his name, Meir Ben-Shabbat, the national security adviser. If a “small deal” is done involving a long cease-fire in exchange for easing conditions in Gaza, Lieberman and Bennett will be able to say this is Netanyahu’s policy and they have their reservations. Lieberman doesn’t believe a larger deal is feasible, one that includes a Hamas-PA reconciliation and a solving of the problem of prisoners and bodies of Israeli soldiers held by Hamas.
Instead, Lieberman presents a longer-term goal: Israel will maintain its hard-line policy on Hamas and eventually Gazans will get fed up with Hamas and replace it. As Lieberman views it, if the Soviet evil empire, as Ronald Reagan termed it, collapsed after the four and a half decades of the Cold War, Hamas will eventually collapse as well. This attitude leaves the defense minister in his political comfort zone, to the right of Netanyahu, leaving the headache of reaching an agreement to his boss.
Lieberman’s breaking to the right again could have implications. Netanyahu’s Gaza policy, ever since he returned to power in 2009, always vacillated between political pressure and necessities dictated by reality, such as concerns about getting mired in Gaza and the absence of an alternative to Hamas.
With Bennett and Lieberman passing him on the right, Netanyahu finds it less comfortable in the center. Two months ago, under similar circumstances, we almost embarked on a war over incendiary kites, until the prime minister, with the army’s recommendation, stepped on the brakes.
The four-day Muslim holiday provided a long hiatus in the negotiations. Israel is now entering the last week of summer vacation, followed soon by the High Holidays. Further delays in reaching an accord could halt the momentum and again raise the risk of war.