The two sides clashing in the Gaza Strip, Israel and Hamas, seemed to be closer on Tuesday evening than anytime during the past few months to “the small arrangement” – a full cease-fire that includes a halt to all acts of violence, alongside the first easing of the blockade on Gaza.
If the efforts to broker the deal by the United Nations and Egyptian intelligence work out, and optimism in Israeli defense circles could be heard for the first time on the matter Tuesday evening, then it is possible that quiet could return to the border between Israel and Gaza for at least a few months.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has examined the possibility of calling early elections over the past few days, because of the coalition crisis over the law on drafting the ultra-Orthodox, along with other considerations. A stable cease-fire in Gaza would allow Netanyahu to conduct the election campaign from a position of relative stability, without having to continually fight back against the accusations that he has abandoned the residents of the south to rockets and incendiary kites.
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The negative side of the understandings with Hamas for Netanyahu is that he is in practice negotiating with Hamas. His denials haven’t convinced anyone. Netanyahu knows exactly to whom the mediators are delivering his answers. It has happened in the past too, under Ehud Olmert’s government after Operation Cast Lead, and on Netanyahu’s watch too, after both Pillar of Defense and Protective Edge. But it seems that this time it is even clearer and more unforgiving.
It will also be a victory from Hamas’ point of view. The organization began escalating the tensions along the border with mass protests on March 30, from a position of deep distress. The understandings are expected to ease the Israeli pressure on the Gaza Strip and give Hamas breathing room. At the same time, the understandings promise Hamas another achievement: being identified as an important and legitimate partner for regional agreements. And Hamas achieved all this through military resistance, in complete opposition to the line taken by its rival Palestinian camp, Fatah and the Palestinian Authority.
The step that is now coming together was woven by the United Nations special envoy for the Middle East peace process, Nickolay Mladenov, with the active help of Egyptian intelligence. The latest round of violence, which came last week, sped up the renewal of contacts and may have even advanced the willingness of the two sides to reach an agreement.
It seems that Netanyahu has chosen the least bad option. It is very possible he will spare the lives of dozens of Israeli soldiers and civilians, who could very well have died in a wide-scale military conflict in Gaza in the next few months. Because Netanyahu never set a clear and attainable goal for himself for an attack on Gaza, he is willing to endure criticism from both the left and right on his demonstration of weakness in the face of terrorism, and not find himself in the middle of a war whose end, the how and why of it, would be a riddle to him.
Education Minister Naftali Bennett is once again passing Netanyahu on the right. On Tuesday evening, he came out openly against the agreement with Hamas and warned about awarding a prize for terror. Bennett presented a different solution to the security cabinet: An attack on Hamas entailing a certain amount of risk, but in his opinion one that would not require a ground offensive inside the Gaza Strip. For now, his is a minority position and the proposal is going back into the drawer. But if the agreement fails, his plan will once again be put on the table – and Bennett will be able to say, “I told you so,” as happened four years ago with the attack tunnels from Gaza. This is an issue that will certainly come up during the election campaign.
On Wednesday morning, at the end of what promises to be three full days of quiet, Israel will expand the area allowed for fishing along the Gaza coast and remove the restrictions it imposed recently on the entry of goods into the Gaza Strip through the Kerem Shalom crossing. The next test will come Friday, when Hamas is supposed to keep its promise to prevent violent protests and stop the incendiary kites and balloons. Later, other means of easing restrictions on Gaza will be made that have not yet been announced.
Potentially, even more is at hand: An agreement on the matter of the Israeli missing and captives in Gaza, and even a reconciliation agreement between the rival Palestinian camps. The prisoner exchange will be difficult to achieve because of Hamas’ demand to release dozens of those who were released in the Gilad Shalit prisoner swap but rearrested by Israel in the summer of 2014. It seems the Shin Bet security service remains firmly opposed to re-releasing them. And as for the reconciliation, the PA still opposes it strongly and even contributed to the tensions because of the sanctions it opposed in Gaza against Hamas. Meanwhile, senior PA and Hamas officials continued to exchange accusations over the past few days.