A great deal of smoke has been rising during in recent days over the Gaza Strip, Cairo, Jerusalem and Ramallah. And it is not only smoke from the fires ignited by the incendiary balloons dispatched from Gaza. It’s also a smokescreen blurring details, discussions, suppositions and guesses about agreements that may have been reached by Hamas, Israel and Egypt over the weekend.
Two main proposals are under discussion – one presented by Egypt and the other by United Nations special Mideast envoy Nickolay Mladenov. The Egyptian proposal gives high priority to internal Palestinian reconciliation between Hamas and Fatah; to exchanges of prisoners and of bodies of soldiers, with Israel; and to an agreement for a long-term cease-fire, to last from five to seven years, with the first step being a cease-fire within days of signing the accord.
Later on a unified Palestinian government would be established that will prepare for elections to take place within six months.
Mladenov’s proposal stresses economic factors and prioritizes the prisoner exchanges. According to this scheme, Israel will allow goods to enter the Strip on a large scale; inject about half-a-billion dollars into its development; establish desalination plants; boost the Strip’s electrical supply; and issue numerous work visas to residents there.
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These two blueprints do not essentially contradict each other; they complement each other. The Hamas leadership is adopting the principles behind both, but the difficulties, as usual, lie in the details.
The Islamist organization opposes linking the economic agreements and the cease-fire to the exchanges of prisoners and the soldiers' bodies. Hamas regards those issues as separate – to be negotiated and agreed upon separately.
Another issue is the question of where the money will come from for economic development, especially given that Cairo rejects funding from Qatar because of the diplomatic conflict between the two countries. The donor nations, including the United States, could raise the requisite money, but it would likely be on condition that there will be an agreed-upon, responsible government in the Strip that would administer the funds. This condition would demand the reconciliation of Hamas and Fatah, or that Egypt be willing to monitor the way the money is used.
Egypt wants the Palestinian Authority to accept this proposal and move ahead quickly on reconciliation. However, PA President Mahmoud Abbas has presented 14 objections that could derail the whole process. Moreover, Abbas recently appointed Nabil Abu Rudeineh deputy prime minister, which Hamas sees as a step showing the president's opposition to a new, unified government. Without such a government, there can be no reconciliation, and without reconciliation, Cairo will have to decide whether it will disregard the PA and become an even more active partner in an accord.
Egypt’s decision to keep the Rafah border crossing open for the past two months without waiting for the PA’s agreement shows that Cairo is also prepared to move ahead independently with Hamas even if that means prolonging the ongoing disconnect between Hamas and Fatah, and a breach of the Quartet agreement regarding the operation of the crossings.
Jerusalem’s silence with regard to Egypt’s decision concerning the Rafah crossing – while Israel itself kept the Kerem Shalom crossing shuttered until this week – shows that Israel's government no longer adheres to the Quartet’s conditions, and no longer sees the involvement of the PA in governing Gaza as a basic condition for the opening of the border crossings or the lifting of the closure there.
It seems that the continued Hamas-Fatah disconnect actually plays into Israel’s hands: It can base its ties with Hamas in the technical and military realms without negotiating with it directly, and certainly without paying a diplomatic price for concessions from Hamas.
This supposition is underscored by the current, active involvement of the UN envoy in the three-way negotiations, when in the past Israel vehemently opposed not only initiatives to mediate between it and Hamas – other than on the issue of prisoners – but even meetings of senior international figures with the leadership of the organization.
Israel demanded in the past that the PA be the sole "address" when it came to governing Gaza, especially when it knew that the PA could not really take up the reins in the Strip. Now, not only is Jerusalem encouraging Mladenov’s efforts, who has met with the Hamas leadership with no restrictions: It is conveying its positions through him and through Egypt to Hamas, and receiving Hamas’ response through Mladenov.
This policy indicates that Israel would agree to regard Hamas as responsible not only for military activity from Gaza vis-à-vis Israel, but would also see it as an authorized governing entity that would oversee implementation of economic and administrative agreements, if and when they are attained.
If this is indeed the outcome of the current talks, it will be a turning point in ties between Israel and Hamas. Israel will have to allow Hamas to conduct extensive business ties with manufacturers in Israel and the West Bank; give more work permits to Gazans, who will also receive permits from Hamas; and redefine the closure on the Strip, which will gradually disintegrate. But more than this: Israel will have to accept the possibility that the new Palestinian government that will be established (if it is established), and will consist of Hamas and the PA, will be granted international legitimacy.
At the same time, Israel will win an important ally in the management of Gaza: Gen. Abdel-Fattah al-Sissi's Egypt. Until now Egypt, which has always aspired to disconnect itself from governing Gaza, and certainly not to annex it, has presented itself only in the role of mediator. But it is finding itself up to its neck in micro-managing the clashes between the Palestinians and Israel, and is the one that will plan and monitor implementation of any agreements with Hamas, on behalf of itself and Israel.
Meanwhile, Cairo, which has proven in recent months that it can rein in the violent clashes, has received a consolation prize from the U.S. government: the release of some $300 million, frozen last year over Egyptian human rights violations.
For Israel, Egypt’s cooperation is a blessing which has so far saved it from having to embark on a broad and dangerous military operation in the Gaza Strip. But this blessing is expected to extract a heavy diplomatic price when Israel will be asked to accede to Egyptian requests involving the governing of Gaza and the implementation of the agreements with Hamas.