Analysis

The Three Men Keeping the Miserable Peace in Gaza

Benjamin Netanyahu, Mahmoud Abbas and Yahya Sinwar are incapable of agreeing on a long-term ceasefire. All will do their utmost to prevent war in Gaza, but won’t try that hard to end the suffering either

Prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu / Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas / Hamas leader Yahya Sinwar
Dario Pignatelli/Bloomberg, REUTERS/Mohammed Salem, REUTERS/Mohamad Torokman

Nothing seems to be working in Gaza. The weekly clashes on the border are now daily, the flaming balloons continue to float over toward Israel, Gaza’s economic and humanitarian situation continues to deteriorate and even tiny chinks of light, such as the supply of diesel fuel, paid for by the Qatari regime, were cut off by Israel in retaliation over the attempts to break through the border fence. 

On Tuesday, Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman warned that Israel would launch a military blow "even at a price of moving to a wide-scale confrontation," and that in his opinion “we must land a strong blow against Hamas. That's the only way to lower the level of violence to zero or close to zero." But it’s empty talk. On the ground there are no preparations for such an offensive. 

The three men who hold Gaza’s situation in their hands, Benjamin Netanyahu, Mahmoud Abbas and Yahya Sinwar are incapable of agreeing on a long-term ceasefire, which will include an easing of the Israeli-Egyptian closure imposed on the Strip. But they don’t want an escalation either. Each in his own way, is making sure not to reach breaking point. 

Sinwar, the first person to combine leadership of both the military and political wings of Hamas in Gaza, embarked recently on a charm offensive, saying in an interview for an Israeli newspaper (his people tried rather ineffectually to deny later on that he knew his words were destined for Yedioth Ahronoth). 

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“A new war is in no one's interest, certainly not our interest,” he said. “Who really wants to confront a nuclear superpower with four slingshots? War doesn't achieve anything." No one is under any illusions that Sinwar is a reborn Zionist. But those in the Israeli military establishment who have been following him closely for years were not surprised. 

Sinwar is not wedded to the policies of his colleagues who led Hamas in Gaza while he was serving four life sentences for murdering Palestinians accused of “collaboration” with Israel. His calculation is that nothing of any real use was achieved by the rounds of warfare since Hamas' bloody Gaza coup in 2006. And as Israel continues to destroy the attack tunnels dug by Hamas under the border, he is shedding no tears. He wasn’t in the leadership when the decision was made to invest valuable resources and the lives of hundreds of diggers.  

His burning ambition is not to be only a guerrilla leader, but a statesman – which is why he seriously tried to pursue reconciliation with Fatah and is now serious about a truce with Israel. He hasn’t repudiated violence. To keep up the heat, he has no problem in continuing to fling thousands of protesters at the border fence, no matter how many are wounded and killed by Israeli sniper fire. But he knows he can gain more now by seeking a deal than by ratcheting up the violence and launching rockets against Israel. 

There is a deep disagreement within the Israeli intelligence community, including among those who met with Sinwar during his 22-year-long incarceration, regarding the degree to which he is capable of reining in his own militancy, and that of Hamas’ members, in pursuit of broader goals. Is he really capable of reaching a long-term ceasefire with Israel? Or is he simply playing for time before the next round of warfare?

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No one has any illusions about Sinwar. He is a very ruthless pragmatist, but there is a growing assessment that Sinwar sees himself not only as a commander of Hamas and ruler of Gaza, but believes he can rival Fatah’s historical dominance of the Palestinian nationalist movement. He is planning to emerge from the lengthy succession fight that is about to engulf Palestinian politics the ultimate winner. 

The man Sinwar hopes to succeed, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, is at his weakest point. The Trump administration’s decisions to move the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem, end funding of UNRWA and other aid programs for the Palestinians and to close down the PLO representation in Washington, have forced him to cut off any dialogue with the U.S. Meanwhile, the aging Palestinian leader is constantly being marginalized by the Arab regimes, including Egypt, the Saudis and Qataris, from their negotiations with Israel and even Hamas. But he still holds two assets – the Palestinian Authority and its security apparatus. 

No one else wants to take responsibility for the three million Palestinians living in the West Bank and through this power base, Abbas’ Palestinian Authority, as weak as it may be, will continue to exert influence as co-guarantor, together with Israel, of security and as a conduit of most funds to Gaza. Abbas can’t end the security coordination with Israel – without it he loses the remains of his political influence and risks Hamas regaining a foothold in the West Bank. 

Cutting Gaza’s budget, while still transferring most of it; trying to disrupt any Gaza deal that bypasses his administration, and continuing the security coordination with Israel – these are Abbas’ ways of trying to remain relevant while not allowing the situation to spiral out of hand and thus lose his own rule over the Palestinian Authority. 

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The sanctions against Gaza are deeply unpopular among the Palestinian public, and not just among Hamas supporters, but Abbas can get away with it. He is unlikely to ever have to run for re-election. Thanks to the security coordination with Israel, his rule over the the Palestinian areas of control in the West Bank is undisputed and he can prolong Gaza’s suffering without allowing it to boil over completely. 

The third leader holding Gaza’s fate is Netanyahu. For him this currently is a lose-lose situation. A long-term ceasefire agreement with Hamas will cost him on the right, as the deal will not include in its first stage a return to Israel of the civilians held in Gaza and the bodies of two Israeli soldiers and there will be ample space for his rival Habayait Hayehudi leader Naftali Bennett to attack him for going soft. No deal means a continuation of the low-level skirmishing on the border and accusations that under his government, Israel’s “deterrence has eroded.” Both harm him politically, and he is undecided which is worse. But the third alternative, a new all-out campaign against Gaza, is even less palatable. For all his criticism of the 2005 Disengagement Plan, he has no interest in reoccupying the Strip and knows full well that nothing less can eliminate Hamas’ arsenal in Gaza. 

Netanyahu’s calculations are complicated by this being election season. A casualty-heavy Gaza offensive will disrupt his plans to present to the voters a flourishing and secure Israel under his leadership. 

Despite his image and rhetoric, Netanyahu is a realist when it comes to using military power, and anyway he doesn’t trust the Israel Defense Forces to end another major conflict in Gaza with the kind of result that would thrill his base. His personal inclination is not to launch wide-scale operations and his political calculation is that it won’t help him at the polls anyway. Together with Sinwar and Abbas, he will do his utmost to prevent war in Gaza, but won’t try that hard to end the suffering of civilians there. At least not quite yet.