Israel didn’t participate in the Cairo negotiations that produced the 72-hour Gaza cease-fire on Tuesday morning, August 5. The invitation had come just hours after an earlier 72-hour cease-fire collapsed with the ambush and attempted kidnap of Lt. Hadar Goldin. That was the fifth cease-fire to collapse in 25 days. Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, said he saw no point in negotiating any more agreements with Hamas.
Instead, while the Egyptians and Palestinians spent the weekend dickering, Israel’s leaders stayed in Jerusalem and attacked each other. Armies of anonymous “senior political figures” spun endless narratives explaining why Israel failed to defeat Hamas, who was to blame and what comes next. From the right came accusations that the generals waged a half-hearted campaign that failed to eliminate Hamas. From the center-left — and the military — came accusations that government ministers created unrealistic expectations of entirely.
“There’s no such thing as 100% protection,” Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon said during an August 4 visit to Ashkelon, near Gaza.
Netanyahu and Yaalon found themselves standing in the middle, insisting the operation was a success. Israeli troops destroyed 32 Hamas attack tunnels. Hamas lost two-thirds of its 10,000 rockets, half fired uselessly at Israel, half destroyed in Israeli attacks. Most important, the leaders argued, Israel restored its deterrence. Hamas learned the price of attacking Israel.
Israelis weren’t buying it. Separate surveys by Channel 2 and Haaretz showed the public evenly divided on whether or not Israel won the war. Israelis were happy with Netanyahu — 63% in the Channel 2 poll and 77% in Haaretz — but only 30% believed Israel’s security was strengthened. Almost as many, 27%, thought Israel was left weaker.
There was some surprise in Jerusalem, therefore, when details of the cease-fire arrived from Cairo. It looked like a resounding defeat for Hamas. To begin with, Hamas had to come to Cairo not as an independent player, as it wanted, but as a junior partner in a united Palestinian delegation led by Mahmoud Abbas’s Ramallah-based Palestinian Authority.
Second, the long list of demands Hamas posed in July as preconditions for a cease-fire, including opening a Gaza seaport and airport, an international force policing Gaza’s land and sea entries, access for Gazans to the Al Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem and expanded fishing rights, had been pared down — at Ramallah’s insistence — to just four: Israeli troop withdrawal; repairing the war damage; releasing the 51 prisoners freed in the Gilad Shalit deal and then rearrested, plus another 26 promised to Abbas in last spring’s peace talks; and lifting the Israeli-Egyptian economic blockade.
Most humiliating, Hamas agreed to accept a cease-fire without preconditions and only afterwards to begin discussing demands. In effect, it accepted the original Egyptian cease-fire proposal it had rejected July 14, three weeks and 1,600 Palestinian deaths earlier. Now it has to explain to the population of Gaza what those 1,600 people died for.
Late Tuesday, Netanyahu reversed himself and agreed to send a delegation to Cairo to negotiate a postwar agreement. Now the prime minister’s life is about to get interesting.
The hardest negotiating in the coming weeks will concern Palestinian demands for reconstruction and lifting the blockade. The two issues require different solutions, but they lead to the same dilemma for Israel.
Lifting the blockade is the simpler problem. It basically means positioning someone that Israel and Egypt trust, not Hamas, to oversee the border crossings on the Gaza side. Egypt wants Abbas’s U.S.-trained presidential guard in charge. So does Yaalon, the defense minister. Abbas’s troops and the IDF have cooperated successfully for years. The security cabinet’s liberals, Tzipi Livni and Yair Lapid, also support it.
Netanyahu hasn’t discussed it publicly. He’s believed to be reluctantly in favor, seeing no alternative, but deeply worried. Giving Abbas a foothold in Gaza will allow him to present himself as a viable national leader and demand progress toward statehood. Yaalon says Abbas can be kept at the gates. Netanyahu isn’t sure.
Israel’s foreign minister, Avigdor Liberman, is against it. He sees Abbas’s government as a hostile force, promoting boycotts and threatening to join the International Criminal Court so he can charge Israel with war crimes charges. Liberman wants the United Nations to take over Gaza in a long-term trusteeship. So far he doesn’t have much support for the U.N. idea, but he might have the votes to keep Abbas in Ramallah.
Abbas will bargain hard on the border issue. Hamas’s success in putting up a fight over the past month has left him looking weak. He hasn’t gotten much for recognizing Israel and helping suppress terrorism. He needs something he can show his people. He doesn’t want to go to the criminal court, because it might end up indicting Palestinians for terrorism.
In Cairo, therefore, the Palestinian delegation will demand that Abbas take charge of the border crossings and then some. They want a Fatah-Hamas unity government in full charge of Gaza. Their unity agreement says the Palestinian government recognizes Israel even if Hamas doesn’t. It’s not unlike Netanyahu’s government accepting the principle of Palestinian statehood, even though its Jewish Home coalition partner doesn’t.
Netanyahu isn’t impressed. He’ll insist that Abbas’s border guards stay at the border. He might win that argument.
But his problem is bigger. He needs someone in the heart of Gaza to oversee reconstruction and prevent Hamas from arming. More than 10,000 homes were destroyed last month, by U.N. figures, leaving 485,000 people homeless. Rebuilding will require lots of cement. The last time Israel allowed cement into Gaza, it lined tunnel walls. Israel won’t allow that again.
There are only two practical ways to prevent Hamas from rearming. One is full Israeli control of Gaza. Hamas would resist. The IDF calculates it would take months of fighting and cost hundreds if not thousands of soldiers’ lives. Some Jewish Home politicians favor the option, but it wouldn’t pass the cabinet, the government or the Knesset.
The other option, backed by Netanyahu, most of the government and the opposition, is an international truce supervisory force. Not the sort that patrols south Lebanon with Fijian and Irish troops, but a U.S.-NATO force. That will be the focus of talks in Cairo in the coming days.
It will get sticky. Israel lost a lot of ground in Europe because of the Gaza death toll. Governments mostly backed Israel, but public opinion erupted. On the first weekend in August the collapse began: Britain announced it was reevaluating arms sales to Israel, Spain canceled them altogether and France called for an imposed two-state solution. Netanyahu has signaled that the extent of rebuilding that Israel will allow will depend on the extent of verified demilitarization. Europe is signaling back that the extent of demilitarization will depend on the extent of progress toward a two-state agreement.
Does that sound like a naïve pipe dream? It’s not so clear. Israeli science minister Yaakov Perry of Yesh Atid, a former Shin Bet director who’s been a non-voting ninth member of the security cabinet throughout the crisis, told an interviewer August 5, the morning the cease-fire began, that Israel now needs to convene an international peace conference, with Saudi Arabia and the Arab League, to begin negotiating the Arab Peace Initiative. Staffers at liberal Israeli think tanks appear to be preparing some of the groundwork.
There are plenty of problems with a scenario like that, not least of which is that Netanyahu’s government would collapse. The next few months will require some deft maneuvering if he’s to keep his job.
Contact J.J. Goldberg at email@example.com
Jonathan Jeremy “J.J.” Goldberg is editor-at-large of the Forward, where he served as editor in chief for seven years (2000-2007).