After a few days of increased hostilities between Israel and Hamas in the Gaza Strip and negotiations in Cairo, Hamas reports a ceasefire has been agreed to. Israel claims there is no deal yet, but US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton is en route to Jerusalem, and an agreement appears to be in the making.
Assuming a ceasefire deal is finalized, the key will be making it stick, an effort that will require regional commitment. Ideally, this agreement would also lead to a gradual revision of Israel's policy of isolation and non-recognition of Hamas.
Failure to reach and enforce a ceasefire will likely lead to an additional escalation of the conflict and may well result in a full-scale Israel Defense Forces ground operation in Gaza: a repeat of the 2008-2009 Operation Cast Lead. Such a military option has serious drawbacks for both parties. Hamas, already weakened by the ongoing Israeli operations and by the killing of its influential military leader Ahmed Jabari, would be further debilitated by a mass-scale Israeli invasion.
For Israel, the costs would be more diplomatic: a deterioration of its relationship with Egypt, which is playing a crucial role in brokering the ceasefire, and a further lessening of its regional and international standing following the likely increase in civilian Palestinian casualties. What's more, if mismanaged, a ground invasion could actually weaken the popularity of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his government, complicating their path to victory in Israel’s Jan. 22 elections.
Enforcing a ceasefire and avoiding an escalation is also important from a broader regional perspective. Between an ongoing bloody civil war in Syria, mass-scale anti-government demonstrations in Jordan, and brewing unrest in the West Bank, a military escalation between Israel and Hamas risks bringing further instability at the regional level – and distracting regional and international actors from these other crises.
A ceasefire seems specifically in the direct interests of a number of regional stakeholders, led by Qatar and Egypt.
In the past year, Hamas has repositioned itself and reviewed its regional alliances as a result of the so-called Arab Awakening. In particular, a strong disagreement between Hamas and its historical patron, the Assad regime, over the way the Syrian government was handling the political opposition has led to the relocation of the group's political bureau away from Damascus.
This shift was accompanied by a strategic realignment, away from Syria and Iran, and closer to countries like Qatar, Egypt, and Turkey.
Hamas is now harvesting the fruits of this timely policy change, counting on the support of these strong regional powers, in stark contrast to the state of near-isolation the group faced in 2008. Both Qatar and Egypt now have a vested interest in continuing to back Hamas, while helping to enforce a ceasefire, and defuse future escalation of the conflict.
For Qatar, luring Hamas away from the Syrian-Iranian Axis represents an important political achievement. Such a conclusion boosts the tiny emirate's regional standing and marks a success in the ongoing competition between the Arab Gulf states and Iran.
For Egypt, the stakes of preventing escalation and an Israeli military ground invasion are even higher. Newly elected Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi’s handling of the crisis in Gaza will continue to be the acid test of the Muslim Brotherhood's capacity to balance between ideology and pragmatism. It also represents Mr. Morsi's chance to prove his government is actually different than the overthrown Mubarak regime.
On Gaza, Morsi faces two competing needs. He must continue to back Hamas, showing ideological consistency and responsiveness to the Egyptian public opinion. On the other hand, the president's support for the Palestinians in Gaza should not jeopardize Egypt's stability and security, as well as its need to preserve a good relationship with the United States. This in turn means abstaining from directly assisting Hamas and policing Sinai to ensure Hamas and other Gaza-based militants cannot re-arm. It also means preserving the peace treaty with Israel.
If a ceasefire falters and the conflict between Israel and Hamas escalates, these two competing needs will more and more become mutually opposite, leading Morsi into a very difficult predicament.
As such, the new Egyptian government has a special interest in obtaining and keeping an end to the hostilities – not just through a temporary ceasefire, but a more long-term negotiated arrangement. This can accomplish two very different goals: to simultaneously reassure the international community of Egypt's “pragmatism” while reinforcing the government's commitment to the Palestinian cause. This could be a win-win situation for Morsi.
So, if both the stakes and the players involved in the ongoing Hamas-Israel conflict are regional, it follows that maintaining a ceasefire and building a more permanent agreement requires regional backing. Regional involvement gives any agreement stronger credibility and stronger chances of holding up beyond the short term.
Both sides stand to gain from keeping a ceasefire. Israel can accept a deal, asserting that the operations conducted so far have weakened Hamas and its arsenal; while Hamas can go for a ceasefire by claiming it was able to “deter” Israel from entering Gaza. In other words, both parties have enough leeway to accept an end to this round of hostilities and still save face.
To last, a ceasefire deal must include a follow-on agreement. Once Hamas ceases its attacks and actively prevents other groups from targeting Israel, there should be a broader political process – regionally-backed – to bring about a gradual "normalization" of Gaza.
Egypt – the main broker of any agreement – would open the border with Gaza, allowing the flow of people and goods. Under this framework, Hamas would also commit to work with Egypt on both tackling the smuggling tunnels and stopping Gaza-based Salafists from stirring trouble in Sinai. The US could also play a role by backing the Egyptian deal, increasing its assistance to Morsi (as requested), and pressuring Israel to refrain from further military operations in Gaza.
Qatar's role would be to increase its backing and financial assistance to Hamas in Gaza, bringing both additional funds as well as badly needed economic development projects.
At the same time, Israel cannot simply pass responsibility for Gaza to Cairo; and, as security permits, Israel will have to re-open its own crossings with Gaza to commerce. Ideally, too, Israel would use this opportunity to strengthen the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank as well.
Secretary Clinton’s trip to the region may help to finalize a deal and keep the conflict from escalating further. Both Israel and Hamas will be able to save face in this expected ceasefire agreement, if they are willing to accept gains for the other side: quiet for Israel and legitimacy for Hamas.
This regional approach would also provide more guarantees that the ceasefire is not just preparation for the next fight.
Benedetta Berti is a research fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies, a lecturer at Tel Aviv University and the coauthor of “Hamas and Hezbollah: A Comparative Study.” Zack Gold is a Washington-based Middle East analyst focusing on US-Egyptian relations. Follow them on Twitter: @benedettabertiw and @ZLGold.