Less than a week ago, Hamas gave Israel an impossible ultimatum: Withdraw your forces from the Temple Mount immediately and release everyone who was arrested in the clashes there or we will attack Jerusalem with rockets.
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The subsequent attack, which Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu dubbed “the crossing of a red line,” served as the casus belli for the massive assault on the Gaza Strip, for which no explicit goal was defined.
Its amorphous goals, such as restoring deterrence or hitting Hamas with blows “it never imagined” in retaliation for the rockets, cannot provide a clear exit point from the confrontation.
How many homes have to be flattened, how many “senior Hamas officials” have to be killed before Israel can claim its victory? It depends entirely on Israel’s criteria. It seems for now that Israel has not met the quota of death and destruction it had set for itself for achieving a military victory or creating a “lasting impression.”
That is why Israel has refused, politely but firmly, mediation offers from Egypt, Qatar, the United States and the European Union. Ostensibly, Israel can still rely on the White House’s support of its right to self-defense and the U.S. statement that deems the response to the Gaza rockets as proportionate.
Beyond sending Hady Amr, the deputy assistant secretary of state for Israel and Palestinian affairs, to meet with leaders from both sides, President Joe Biden has shown a degree of indifference to the fighting, refraining from issuing sharp reprimands of either side in favor of bland statements such as “My expectation and hope is this will be closing down sooner than later,” as if he were talking about a disappointing baseball game. He even avoided convening the United Nations Security Council on the grounds that it could adversely affect the mediation efforts, despite knowing that these efforts are in any event falling on deaf ears.
Biden’s two conversations with Netanyahu don’t change the fact that the president is chary of involvement in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in general and the current round of fighting in particular. In part, he wants to avoid embarrassing himself before his client in Jerusalem who makes sure to remind him that Israel will do everything necessary to protect itself, whether in Gaza City or in Tehran, and whether Washington likes it or not.
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The U.S. administration is making do at this point with conversations with the heads of the relevant countries – Israel, Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates – aimed at reaching a cease-fire. Without an American policy, which will dictate or even direct the mediation efforts, what remains is the regional communication channel.
This consists mainly of Egyptian officials’ contacts with Hamas leaders and with their Israeli counterparts, followed by briefings from Cairo to Saudi Arabia and the UAE of their respective positions. The format is basically the same as in previous IDF operations in Gaza.
It includes a demand for a cease-fire and a return to the understanding reached after the clashes along the border fence about two years ago. This time, however, Cairo has not closed its own border with the Strip at Rafah, and seems unlikely to do so. Israel, for its part, has not blocked the monthly cash transfer from Qatar to Gaza.
According to sources in the Palestinian Authority and in Hamas, the organization that controls the Strip is adhering to its demand for the withdrawal of Israeli forces from the Temple Mount, as both the pretext for the rocket attack on Jerusalem and the justification for its actions. The Temple Mount – that is, the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound – is also the common denominator underpinning Arab support for Hamas, including within Israel.
Egypt’s main challenge at the moment is to persuade Israel to separate its military operation in Gaza from its need to reduce tensions on Temple Mount and Hamas’ claim to be protecting Al-Aqsa. Egypt views this as vital not only to isolating the cease-fire negotiations from their ideological underpinnings but also stripping Hamas of its “ownership” of the clashes in Jerusalem that ignited the fighting.
In Israel, however, this decoupling is seen as a concession to Hamas, since any Israeli retreat on the Temple Mount will from now on be considered a victory for Hamas. A possible way around this conundrum is for Israel and Jordan to negotiate security arrangements at the site and avoid the appearance of Israeli concessions to Hamas.
Another problem has to do with the guarantees Israel will demand from Hamas to obtain a longer period of calm. All of the previous agreements relied on Egyptian guarantees and commitments, with Qatar underwriting civil operations in the Strip. These guarantees failed vis-à-vis the Temple Mount and put Egypt in a position of weakness, incapable of convincing Israel to pull back while at the same time unable to criticize Hamas for fear of appearing not to support the Muslim-Palestinian struggle to defend Al-Aqsa.
At the same time, Israel has no better or more effective partner than Egypt. Israel will have to be more flexible toward Egypt in negotiations in order to end the confrontation, even if the guarantees it receives are not carved in stone. This flexibility is crucial because any agreement reached will depend on the understanding that Israel cannot and does not want to topple Hamas rule in the Gaza Strip.
That understanding is the central pillar of Israeli diplomacy in the territories, on which it built its separation of the West Bank and Jerusalem from Gaza, with the aim of using that pillar as a defensive wall against international pressure to establish an independent Palestinian state. As long as this separation remains Israel’s policy, it will continue to dictate the elasticity characterizing Israel’s relationship with Hamas.