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Neither Israel nor Hamas Will Back Down

Under different circumstances, it would have been possible for both Israel and Hamas to present a picture of victory by now

A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el
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The Iron Dome intercepting a rocket from Gaza above the city of Ashdod on Tuesday.
The Iron Dome intercepting a rocket from Gaza above the city of Ashdod on Tuesday.Credit: Menahem Kahana / AFP
A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el

Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry could not have been more clear. “Our conversations with Israel did not yield the desired results,” he said Tuesday at an emergency meeting of Arab League foreign ministers. Not only have Cairo’s efforts not borne fruit, they have been politely but firmly rejected. According to sources in Egypt who were quoted in Arab media outlets, Israel’s coldness led Egypt to support the escalation, encouraging Hamas to continue its attacks from the Gaza Strip while instructing the Egyptian media not to criticize the group.

Hamas spokesmen made the conditions of their “ultimatum” to Israel clear: Remove the forces from the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound and from Sheikh Jarrah, and release all the activists arrested in recent days, or else the rocket fire will continue. If reports of the Egyptians’ ire are correct and Hamas is free to act, then the movement leading the Gaza Strip is bound to the terms of its ultimatum – especially considering that it is demanding policy shifts that Israel is unwilling to make.

Experience shows, however, that the opening positions of both Hamas and Israel are usually just that, rather than final offers. Moreover, neither one can tolerate a prolonged military confrontation.

While there was consternation in Israel that Hamas had dared to issue an ultimatum, Fatah leaders in the Palestinian Authority fear that Hamas’ sponsorship of the tensions in Jerusalem push them aside as leaders of the crisis. The Jerusalem tensions, which include the Sheikh Jarrah saga and the clashes at the Temple Mount “fell into Hamas’ waiting hands like fruit ripe for the picking,” a Hamas operative living in Hebron told Haaretz. “Ever since Mahmoud Abbas canceled the Palestinian parliamentary elections last month in revenge for Israel’s refusal to allow elections in Jerusalem, Hamas has been pushing to reverse the decision.”

Ismail Haniyeh, the head of the Hamas political bureau, reached out to Qatar’s Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, asking him to pressure the Palestinian president. Haniyeh also spoke with senior Egyptian officials and even attempted to recruit Turkish President Recep Tayipp Erdoğan to the cause.

These efforts, obviously, did not bear fruit. Abbas held firm, Hamas denounced and protested, but understood that it would have to wait for the next opportunity. And then the tensions began and thanks to Israel’s mismanagement, Hamas identified an opportunity to oust the shaky PA as guardians of the holy places and to cement its place as the leader of the crisis.

Thus, the old equation whereby Hamas is only responsible for Gaza, and Jerusalem is an internal Israeli matter – one that even Israel’s friends in the United States and Jordan have no room to intervene in, this absolute divide, which has remained at the base of Israel’s diplomacy since 2007, melted away and not only because of what seems to be Hamas’ new policy in relation to Jerusalem. Because when Israel is managing its battleground against Hamas over missile fire, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu defines the red line as rockets on Jerusalem and not the Gaza border area, he gives legitimacy to Hamas’ standing as the representatives of the “Jerusalem issue.” Hamas, by the way, never gave up on its role in East Jerusalem or on the struggle for the Temple Mount, and by its own estimation crossed no red line. Israel is the one who defined this attack as a red line, despite the fact that Jerusalem has already been targeted by rockets in past conflicts.

In this diplomatic balance of power, it doesn’t matter who negotiates the cease-fire, be it Egypt, the United States or a combination of Arab and American mediators. Any formula will credit Hamas, which took ownership of the violent conflict. Whether or not Palestinian elections are held, Hamas has established itself in Jerusalem.

This is particularly worrisome for Jordan, the PA and Egypt. As long as Israel “used” Hamas to manage the Gaza Strip, and relinquishes responsibility for the Strip’s occupation by letting Hamas run the show, and even allowed it to receive millions of dollars from Qatar, For Jordan and the PA this development is a loss of political and diplomatic power.

For Egypt, which controls Hamas and the Strip through its border crossings with the territory, Hamas strengthening in Jerusalem expands the influence of Qatar and Turkey, its rivals, into the Palestinian issue.

Until a few weeks ago it was unimaginable that Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu and his Egyptian counterpart would hold talks on anything at all, let alone the Palestinians. This week, they’ve already spoken about restoring calm to Jerusalem and Gaza. Given Qatar and Turkey’s new status as “kosher countries,” Cavusoglu even visited Saudi Arabia and met with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. They discussed the “Palestinian problem,” while the Qatari emir arrived in the kingdom where he was warmly welcomed by the crown prince. These leaders have their own reasons for meeting that stem from Saudi Arabia’s new conciliatory attitude toward its neighbors, including with Iran.

Now, the conflicts in Gaza and Jerusalem, as well as the status of Hamas, have birthed a worthy common denominator between these former rivals. All these heads of state, including Egypt, joined hands in condemning Israel.

Under different circumstances, it would have been possible for both Israel and Hamas to present a picture of victory by now. They may have been able to demonstrate, as usual, an imaginary balance of achievements and formulate a new cease-fire agreement.

But Israel is currently ruled by a government and prime minister that are fighting for their political lives. Every Israel Air Force airstrike, every casualty in Gaza, is not only meant to demonstrate victory over Hamas. They are now part of an internal political balance of power aimed at proving which political regime can best cope with war and what security threats would face the country if it were controlled by a “left-wing government.”

The prime minister who earned the title “the most anti-war leader in Israeli history” now seems like he’s trying to shed the title as quickly as possible while it threatens his political standing. That’s the real challenge that the mediators trying to reach a cease fire will have to contend with.

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